For the last two weeks a Brooklyn courtroom has been the scene of a television drama that Hollywood's best scriptwriters would be hard pressed to match.
There, on the TV monitors scattered around the room, Rep. Michael (Ozzie) Myets, a 37-year-old former longshoreman from south Philadelphia, gave perhaps the most graphic demonstration of alleged political corruption ever recorded.
In an explosive 1 1/2-hour session with two undercover FBI agents played Friday, the congressman complained that he got only $15,000 in cash from a first $50,000 payoff, demanded the other $35,000 he was "entitled" to and agreed to use his influence with other members of Congress, the Philadelphia City Council and even the Mafia -- for another $50,000.
Defense attorneys have been forced to concede that Myers and his three codefendants split the $50,000 cited in the bribery and conspiracy charges. "How do you cross-examine a tape?" asked one with a shrug.
They say, in effect, that their clients are guilty of another crime: trying to defraud the "sheik's" representatives. Indeed, testimony has shown the middlemen -- Camden, N.J., Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti and Philadelphia lawyers Howard L. Criden and Louis C. Johanson -- taking most of the alleged payoff package from the unsuspecting Myers, and unsuccessfully attempting to con the FBI undercover agent by passing off a partner as an immigration official.
But the defense contends that Myers never intended to complete the alleged bribery transaction by introducing the private immigration bill that he promised.
They have tried to focus the jury's attention instead on the alleged misdeeds of government agents, especially Melvin Weinberg, a convicted felon who somehow succeeded in passing himself off as a financial wizard despite sentences that don't parse and a business card that said he had connections in "Zurick" Switzerland.
It is doubtful the jury will find that Weinberg's antics outweigh the evidence they have seen on the tevelision screen. But the testimony at the trail so far does raise nagging questions about the bigger issue of how far the government can, or should, go in dangling bait in front of public officials.
Defendents in all the Abscam cases have made legal arguments that the government overreached by creating crimes and thus deprived the congressmen of "due process."
Top FBI and Justice Department officials rushed to defend the techniques used in the Abscam investigation when it faced hostile questioning in Congress early this year after newspaper accounts disclosed the undercover operation. William H. Webster, director of the FBI, and Philip B. Heymann, head of the criminal division at Justice testified that the activities of the "sting" agents were monitored closely.
But the evolution of the Abscam operation also seems to show the FBI doing quite a bit of the on-the-job training in the early days. For example:
Undercover FBI agent Anthony Amoroso Jr. testified that he first raised the issue of immigration help for the Arab sheik in a conversation with Errichetti on the sheik's yacht in Florida in March 1979. He said he did so casually after reading about the possible immigration problems of deposed Nicaraguan strongman Anastasio Somoza the day before in The Miami Herald.
Errichetti and Criden soon were claiming they could bring in members of Congress to take care of the sheik's immigration problems, according to trail testimony. But future policy makers may ask whether the investigation just drifted into this area or was the FBI fishing for congressmen by bringing up immigration -- before there was any, evidence crimes were being committed?
The defense played a June 1979 audio tape of Weinberg priming Sen. Harrison Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) for a scheduled meeting with the sheik in an attempt to show the undercover informant "set up" the senator and did the same to the defendants in the Myers case.
Heymann and other Justice officials have said they recognize the danger of using informants in undercover capacities because they cannot be trained or controlled like FBI agents. It has been reported that Robert del Tufo, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, complained about such coaching of Williams by government agents.
In the Philadelphia phase of the investigation, the FBI refused to use Weinberg -- apparently after seeing and hearing him on previous tapes -- and undercover agent Michael Wald did a masterful acting job as the sheik's expediter.
It might be asked why -- given the lack of control -- the FBI used Weinberg at all, once the investigation turned to the extemely sensitive area of possible corruption in Congress?
In the alleged Aug. 22 payoff videotape where Amoroso hands Myers an envelope containing $50,000 in $100 bills, the undercover agent tries to make it clear to the congressman that the promise of the immigration bill is the reason "we're puttin' up this kind of money."
He also tells Myers he's interested in "protecting" him, but he never quite says the transaction they are discussing is illegal. In testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee on March 4, Webster said that as an extra precaution his agents made it clear to Abscam targets that the conduct they were embarking upon was criminal.
The Justice Department is working on guidelines that will require that undercover agents make it unequivocally clear when a proposed transaction is illegal.
As the investigation progressed, the undercover operatives are said to have gotten better at making that point to members of Congress. It is also said that as the agents made their point more precisely, the congressmen made their answers less precise.
Future policy makers may have a hard time drawing a line at determining how much warming a possibly corrupt official should receive.
In the first higher court ruling on the legal aspects of Abscam, U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jon Newman said the operation "inevitably raises sensitive issues of public policy and public law."
"If agents of the government can confront members of Congress with manufactured opportunities to accept bribes, there is created the risk that malevolent officials of the executive branch will one day select as targets for a bribery sting particular senators or representatives in political disfavor with the president," Newman wrote.
He added, however, that such targets can always say no.
With the Abscam trials the first real test of the FBI's undercover techniques, many will be watching to see if the government wins acceptance or restraints on its policy, as well as some likely victories in the courtroom.