Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. (D-S.C.) told a federal jury yesterday that he suggested Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) as a possible bribe target because he was scared and didn't know what to do after an FBI undercover agent he thought was a mobster offered him $50,000 in cash.
Jenrette, accused with codefendant John R. Stowe of conspiracy to accept payoffs from representatives of a phony Arab Sheik, indicated he thought he could stall the "mobsters" by implicating another legislator.
"I quite frankly thought Stowe had passed it on to me and I was quite frankly going to pass it on to someone else," Jenrette said. Stowe, according to evidence, was Jenrette's link to the FBI undercover operation. a
"You were going to pass it on to a senator in his mid-70s?" prosecutor John Kotelly asked Jenrette during cross-examination.
Jenrette responded that he thought he would pass it on to one of three senators whose names he said were raised by FBI informant in connection with the Abscam sting. Thurmond was the easiest, Jenrette testified, because he was the senator from Jenrette's home state.
Jenrette, who completed 11 hours of testimony as his defense neared its close yesterday, told the jury he never set up the meeting and never talked to Thurmond about payoffs for private immigration legislation that the undercover men said the sheik would pay for.
"I knew at some point in time I was going to have to face up to my passing the buck and sit down with the senator and explain what I had done," Jenrette told the jury.
The government contends that Jenrette planned to have Thurmond introduce the private bill as a favor and that Jenrette intended to pocket $125,000 that had been offered by the undercover men -- allegations Jenrette flately denied from the witness stand yesterday.
Jenrette repeated his defense that he was "stalling for time" with the Thurmond story, although he admitted he didn't ask law enforcement authorities or congressional leaders for help, adding he didn't know who to turn to. Jenrette also admitted under questioning that he didn't warn Thurmond about the men he thought were mobsters.
When prosecutor Kotelly suggested that Jenrette dealt with the undercover Arabs because he wanted financial help for a failing real estate investment in South Carolina, Jenrette angrily shot back, "The only thing I was trying to do was save my . . . from people I thought were mobsters."
Jenrette admitted that he sent a detailed financial statement to the men he repeatedly said he thought were mobsters, but he insisted that he only wanted to secure financial help for codefendant Stowe, who wanted Arab loans to salvage a munitions plant in Jenrette's district where 500 of his consituents are employed.
When Kotelly asked if that meant he would allow "mobsters" to finance the plant, Jenrette responded, "If John Stowe's problem after that."
"Did you tell anyone about these mobsters you were dealing with?" Kotelly asked Jenrette at the end of his cross-examination.
"No sir," Jenrette responded.
Under questioning from Stowe's lawyer, Murray Janus, Jenrette testified he had no recollection that he and Stowe ever discussed a $50,000 bribe before they went to a meeting with FBI undercover men last December. Secret FBI tapes showed Stowe picking up that cash two days later, but Jenrette denied that he saw or received anything but $10,000 that Stowe asked him to hold for him.
That night in a tape-recorded telephone conversation, Jenrette responded "everthing's fine" when the FBI undercover agent asked if he had received a "package" from Stowe. Jenrette testified yesterday that he thought the agent was referring to a packet of information about the South Carolina munitions plant.
A note for the $10,000 was signed in Jenrette's office in the presence of a staff member, and weeks later Jenrette acknowledged using the money to repay his in-laws for a loan.
When Janus asked why he used the money that he was "holding" for Stowe, Jenrette responded that he thought that one of the phony Arab sheiks, whom he identified as "Yassar," was returning to the United States and that it "wouldn't matter" what happened to the $10,000, himself or Stowe.