Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) called Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. (D-S.C.) a "lying skunk" yesterday for telling an undercover FBI agent that Thurmond would be willing to talk a $125,000 bribe in return for introducing an immigration bill for a phony Arab Shiek.
The 77-year-old senator, an American flag pin in his lapel, made the remark in a hallway at U.S. District Court here after he testified for more than an hour as a government witness at Jenrett's trial on conspiracy and bribery charges stemming from the FBI undercover "sting" operation known as Abscam.
Thurmond answered with a crisp and emphatic "no!" when government prosecutor Reid Weingarten asked if he had ever received money from Jenrett or anyone else in exchange for a legislative favor.
Earlier in the week, the jury saw a videotape and heard a taped conversation in which Jenrette suggested to FBI undercover agent Anthony Amoroso that Thurmond would be willing to accept money and that Jenrett would talk to him about such a deal in exchange for private immigration legislation.
Under cross-examination by Jenrett's lawyer, Kenneth Michael Robinson, Thurmond testified, "I was just amazed that anyone would make the statement" that Jenrette made on the government tapes.
Earlier, Thurmond said of Jenrette, "I think he knows there wouldn't be any use to come to me with anything dishonest."
Outside the courtroom, Thurmond told reporters that he had heard both the taped conversations and the audio portion of the government's video tape in which his name was raised by Jenrette.
After listening to the tapes, Thurmond said, "It just occurred to me that he was a lying skunk."
Thurmond told the jury that he had had a "cordial and friendly" but not a close relationship with Jenrette, 44, who has been in the House for six years. After his testimony, Thurmond told reporters that now "I think it would be better not to have any relationship with him."
Jenrette and his codefendant, Richmond businessman John R. Stowe, are charged with soliciting payoffs in exchange for Jenrette's promise to introduce private immigration legislation for a phony Arab shiek. The jury has seen a videotape, secretly made in a house on W Street Northwest that had been elaborately wired by the FBI, in which Stowe accepted $50,000 in cash in a paper bag and said he was on his way to Jenrette's office.
During his testimony Thurmond also denied Jenrette's implication, again made on the government tapes, that the senior senator from South Carolina was somehow involved in introducing an immigration bill in exchange for money from a Filipino doctor in his home state.
Thurmond testified that he had been asked to help another senator with the bill for the doctor and his family in September 1979. Thurmond said the family subsequently sent him a tablecloth and some napkins as a sign of their gratitude, but added that he had made clear that the gift would have to be returned.
Thurmond said he later sent the doctor a check for $65 -- the value of the linens -- and then gave them to his personal secretary "as an extra Christmas present."
The senator's personal secretary also testified yesterday that on Jan. 30 Jenrette asked for a meeting with Thurmond and later arranged to see him at noon the following day in a reception room off the Senate floor. Jenrette never showed up, the secretary and Thurmond both testified.
There is no dispute by either the prosecution or the defense that Jenrette never discussed the alleged bribe proposal with Thurmond. The government contends it will show that Jenrette intended to pocket the $125,000 while at the same time getting Thurmond to introduce private legislation for the sheik simply as a courtesy to a fellow legislator from South Carolina.
During his testimony yesterday, Thurmond recalled that on Feb. 5, 1980, three days after the Abscam investigation was made public in newspaper reports, Jenrette called him aside at a reception in a caucus room at the Cannon House Office Building.
Thurmond testified that Jenrette told him, "Did you know that the FBI tried to get me to bring you down to that house?"
"What house?" Thurmond said he replied.
"I told them I wouldn't do it. That you wouldn't come," Thurmond said Jenrette told him.
On government tapes heard by the jury, Jenrette told undercover agent Amoroso that Thurmond wouldn't come to any meetings because, among other things, he was too old and "paranoid" that he might be followed by the press.
In other developments at the trial, which resumed yesterday after a recess for the Jewish holiday, Judge John Garrett Penn spent more than 30 minutes, outside the presence of the jury, questioning agent Amoroso about whether there were any notes or records on the case other than the tapes. Amoroso repeatedly replied that there were none.
Lawyers for both defendants have protested that a key figure in the Abscam sting, convicted con man Melvin Weinberg, was virtually unsupervised during the investigation and selectively taped conversations with their clients. There has been evidence at the trial to show that it was Weinberg's contract with Stowe that eventually brought Jenrette into the case. Weinberg has also said that four cassette tapes, possibly related to the Jenrette case, were stolen from his luggage last January along with a box of cigars during an airline flight.
The defense lawyers contend that without full information about all conversations, their clients have been denied their constitutional right to fully defend themselves. Penn has not yet ruled on defense motions to dismiss the indictments on that basis.