The chief prosecutor in the first Abscam bribery trial today ridiculed Rep. Michael (Ozzie) Myers' claim that he was only acting when he took $50,000 from undercover FBI agents last year after promising to introduce a private immigration bill for a fictitious Arab "sheik."
Thomas P. Puccio told the jury in final arguments at Myers' trial in Brooklyn that the Pennsylvania Democrat's testimony was filled with lies. "What do you do when you're caught red-handed on video tape?" Puccio asked, "Congressman Myers became a man in need of a story. And what a story he told."
The case is expected to go to the jury Friday morning.
In a refrain he used frequently in his two-hour summation, Puccio told the jury that their common sense and the video-taped evidence -- portions of which he played again today -- would tell them "what was acting and what was real."
He noted that Myers had admitted lying continuously to get money from the "sheik." He made false statements to obtain money," Puccio said. "Would he hestitate one second to lie on this witness stand to get off the hook?"
In their closing arguments, defense attorneys countered that Melvin Weinberg, not Myers, was the liar.Weinberg is a convicted con man who worked undercover for the FBI in the Abscam investigation. The defense contends that Weinberg told one of Myers' codefendants that the congressman would never have to do anything for the money, that he only had to "talk tough and come on strong" to impress the "sheik's" representatives.
Thus, the defense attorneys have argued, their clients did not intend to violate the bribery laws, as the three-count indictment alleges.
Myers' attorney, Plato Cacheris, in his final argument emphasized lack of criminal intent on Myers' part. "The fact he had none defeats the government's case, and that's why Mr. Puccio doesn't like his testimony," he said.
Cacheris called Pucco's summation "vicious" and insisted that the "real Ozzie Meyers" was the one who testified early this week, rather than the one was was merely acting out a role on the videotapes.
"He did not sell his office. He did not take a bribe. He performed no official act," Cacheris said.
Richard Ben-Veniste, attorney for Howard L. Criden, and John Duffy, attorney for Criden's Philadelphia law partner. Louis C. Johanson, both spent considerable time attacking Weinberg's credibility.
While Puccio emphasized the videotaped evidence, Ben-Veniste argued tht the crucial parts of the case were "what went on off camera." He cited on audio tape in which Weinberg coached Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.) -- who has not been charged in the Abscam cases -- to boast of his influence in a meeting with the "sheik." He also reminded the jury of gaps in some of the tapes, which an expert witness testified yesterday were caused deliberately, rather than accidentally as Weinberg had testified.
Ben-Veniste said he had to laugh at Puccio's claim that "the tape won't change" because "that's the one thing that did change."
Ben-Veniste did admit that Criden "appears ridiculous . . . and foolish on the videotapes." He even said his client "is guilty of being greedy." But he said Criden is not guilty of the crimes charged.
Though the trial judge, George C. Pratt, has said the government's conduct is not an issue for the jury to consider, Duffy attacked the FBI and Justice Department posecutors as well as Weinberg. "There's a nest of dangerous and criminal men at work here -- dangerous to the future of our society," he said. "I am truly worried."
Raymond A. Brown, Angelo Errichetti's attorney, took nearly two hours for his summation, in which he emphasized his contention that the FBI needed to use Weinburg, the con man, to trick the defendants into actions that could be labeled crimes.
Brown also suggested that the government had not proved that Errichetti had received any of the alleged $50,000 payoff. It is not clear from the indictments, however, that the government has to prove more than that Errichetti was part of the alleged conspiracy and that he aided and abetted the alleged bribery of Myers.
Puccio dismissed the defense attacks against Weinberg in his final attacks against Weinberg in his final argument. He said the important thing for the jury to consider was the tapes, not Weinberg: "He's a very interesting red herring, a smokescreen."
Puccio's manner was much more aggressive today than earlier. The balding, 35-year old prosecutor paced back and forth before the jury, waving his horm-rimmed glasses in the air and raising his voice to emphasize his disbelief in Myers' testimony.
"The United States Congress is not Actors Equity. By his own admission he lied, and lied, and lied and lied and lied. Can you believe him when he tells you he's acting?"
The prosecutor reminded the jurors that three of the defendants, Myers, Johanson, a Philadelphia city councilman, and Erichetti, mayor of Camden, N.J., are public officials, holding positions of trust, power and influence. He said the defendants, who have acknowledged sharing the alleged $50,000 payoff, drove to a Kennedy Airport meeting last August "for one reason -- spelled M-O-N-E-Y."
The Jan. 24, 1980, videotape of Myers demanding more money at a Philadelphia hotel "resolves any question in your mind about what was going on the Aug. 22 meeting," Puccio said. Ridiculing Meyers' claim that he was drunk that night in Philadelphia, Puccio said sarcastically, "Do you accept that nonsense?"
After the defense attorneys completed their final summations at about 10 p.m., Puccio had the last word to the jury. Attempting to rebut doubts raised to about Weinberg's role and the intent of were trying to distract the jury's attention away from "the critical evidence" in the case. "You're to believe what's important is Mel Wienberg and not Congressman Myers stuffing his pockets," he said.
Congress Myers wasn't handed a script by Mel Weinberg. He said things because he meant them. He sold his office for $50,000."
Puccio called Myers' testimony an "Alice-in-Wonderland" tale. "Do you really believe he intended doing nothing, but said he'd do everything?" Puccio asked.
The prosecutor said he agreed with Duffy's statement that there was "tragedy in this room."
"There is a lot of tragedy in this room for the citizens of Philadelphia whom this congressman represents . . . There is tragedy for the Congress of the United States, in which Mr. Myers sits. There is tragedy on this screen," he said, tapping the TV monitor, which has been the focal point of the trial.