Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. (D-S.C.) was portrayed by his lawyer in U.S. District Court yesterday, as a vulnerable and broken man plagued by alcoholism and financial trouble, who "thought he was a dead man" after he got involved in a $50,000 deal that turned out to be part of the FBI's Abscam "sting" operation.
Jenrette, 44, dabbed at tears in his eyes with a handkerchief as his lawyer, Kenneth Michael Robinson, told the jury that Jenrette believed he was dealing with "the mob," and began toput his affairs in order, update his insurance policies and make arrangements for his wife, rita, because he thought he was going to die.
Jenrette and his codefendant, Richmond, Va., businessman John R. Stowe, are on trial on charges that they conspired to get payoffs in return for a promise that Jenrette would ntroduce immigration bills for the undercover FBI agent's "Arab clients."
Government prosecutor John Kotelly said that Jenrette was a "corrupt politician" when he went to a Georgetown house last Dec. 4 to meet with the FBI agent who called himself "Tony DeVito," Jenrette was "ready, willing and able to take a bribe," Kotelly told the jury in his opening statement yesterday.
Robinson told the jury, however, that Jenrette went to the house to help his longtime friend Stowe secure loans from Arabs to save a factory in Jenrette's congressional district from bankruptcy. Robinson said the evidence would show that Stowe tried to convince Jenrette he would get political credit for saving the 500 jobs at the factory and that Stowe would get the $50,000 offered by the agent for the Arabs.
Four times at the meeting at the house, Robinson said Jenrette was offered an immediate $50,000 on his promise to introduce an immigration bill, but four times Jenrette turned down the deal, which would have included another $50,000 when the legislation was actually introduced.
"Was he tempted? You better believe it. He'll tell you he fought. He wanted that money. It was a miracle cure," Robinson said in a preview of Jenrette's expected testimony.
Robinson told the jury they would hear Jenrette say, "I'd love to have the money. I've got larceny in my blood. But I don't want to take your money and not deliver."
"You'll hear a scared man . . . You'll see fear," Robinson said of his client. He described Jenrette as the child of a South Carolina tobacco farm who grew up to become a wealthy congressman who lost his good life to debts and alcohol. On top of that, Robinson said, Jenrette was hounded by government investigators on charges ranging from illegal real estate deals to misuse of postage stamps.
Jenrette "doesn't like cement," Robinson said in an apparent reference to Jenrette's alleged fear that he might die in the hands of the mob if he failed to deliver what the man in the Georgetown house had asked for at that December meeting.
Robinson told the jury that Jenrette feared he would be unable to deliver the immigration bill because he expected at the time to be indicted in South Carolina in connection with a criminal investigation there. Although Jenrette was not charged in the case, he believed that any bill he introduced in Congress would be worthless if he were under indictment.
Robinson said that the evidence will show that Stowe, who brought Jenrette to the house, pressured the congressman to go along with the deal so that Stowe, who was also having financial problems, could be assured of the loans for the South Carolina factory.
Robinson said that Jenrette told Stowe, "Hey, you're talking about the mob. I'm not promising them anything."
However, Robinson said, Jenrette finally agreed to let Stowe pick up the first $50,000 installment after Stowe threatened to go to South Carolina and hold a press conference charging that Jenrette had let the factory -- and the 500 jobs -- fall through.
At that point, Robinson said, "John Jenrette felt like putting a bullet in his brain."
Kotelly told the jury, however, that the government would prove that the factory story was a cover that Jenrette would use to explain why he had introduced the immigration legislation for the Arabs.
The government's evidence also will show that Jenrette tried to convince the Arab agent that Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) was willing to take money for introduction of similar leglislation, Kotelly said.
Jenrette intended to try to persuade Thurmond to introduce the bill as a courtesy, Kotelly said, but Jenrette also planned to pocket the $125,000 offered by the FBI undercover agent to salvage one of his real estate projects in South Carolina.
Kotelly said that Thurmond will testify that he never talked to Jenrette about such a deal.
Stowe's lawyer, Murray Janus, told the jury that there was no dispute that his client had received the $50,000 in cash in a paper bag and had then taken the money to Jenrette's office. But Jenrette and Stowe differ about what happened next, Janus told the jury.
Jenrette will contend that he agreed to keep $10,000 as a loan from Stowe and that he insisted on signing a note in front of a witness to that effect, Robinson said. Janus contended at earlier court hearings that Jenrette kept $40,000 and that Stowe took $10,000 as a commission on the deal.
Janus described his client, Stowe, 50, as a "desperate man" who had childish dreams about resurrecting his once prosperous lifestyle with the help of Arab money. Stowe was the link between Jenrette and convicted con man Mel Weinberg, who played a key role in the FBI undercover operation.
Janus said the evidence will show that Stowe thought that he was working with Weinberg to finance legitimate business investments, but that Weinberg repeatedly pushed Stowe to introduce him to Jenrette, Stowe's longtime friend.