The Justice Department is contemplating suing members of Congress convicted in the Abscam cases to recover government bribe money taken from undercover FBI agents.
Irvin B. Nathan, the deputy assistant attorney general who supervised the investigation, said yesterday that the department's civil division is "actively considering" suits against Rep. John Jenrette (D-S.C.), former representative Michael (Ozzie) Myers (D-Pa.) and those convicted with them. Jenrette, with a co-defendant, was convicted Tuesday of bribery and conspiracy. Myers, convicted on similar charges in August, was expelled from the House of Representatives last week.
Four House members still face bribery trials in the Abscam investigation. The next trial most likely will be Nov. 10, when the two most senior members accused in the Abscam cases, Reps. John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.) and Frank Thompson Jr. (D-N.J.) face bribery and conspiracy charges. The trail was postponed until after the election because the two committee chairmen said they needed time to campaign.
Nathan said the contemplated civil suits shouldn't be viewed as harassment of those convicted. "We simply want the return of the money," he said. "In the Myers case there's no dispute that he and his co-defendants split $50,000. tIn Jenrette, there's no dispute that [codefendant John] Stowe left the building with $50,000. How they divvied it up doesn't matter."
The department filed a civil suit against former representative Charles C. Diggs Jr. (D-Mich) in August 1979, claiming he had unjustly enriched himself by taking kickbacks from his congressional employes. The suit was dropped a year later, however, when it became clear that Diggs would not be able to repay the money.
Attorneys for Jenrette and Myers said yesterday that they considered the possibility of the civil suits "outrageous." Kenneth Michael Robinson, Jenrette's lawyer, said, "They gave the money away to get the people to commit the crime." Neil F. Jokelson of Philadelphia, who has filed suits for Myers challenging his expulsion from Congress, said he recalled that Myers had said he would repay his $15,000 share of the bribe money if the trial judge ordered it.
"Their going after the $15,000 has to cost more than they'd get if they won," he said. "Who's going to pay for the $5 million Abscam cost? Or for the $100,000 [undercover informer Mel] Weinberg got? The least expensive part of the whole proposition was the $15,000 Myers got."
In the Abscam investigation, undercover FBI operatives posed as the representatives of a phony Arab sheik and offered cash payoffs in return for promises to introduce private immigration bills. Secret videotapes of the transactions have been the government's best evidence in the cases tried so far.
Two Philadelphia city councilmen also have been convicted in Abscam trials. In each case, jurors and defense counsel have agreed that the tapes were essentail in returning a conviction.
The trial of Rep. Richard Kelly (R-Fla.), who admitted stuffing $25,000 in cash in his pockets in one such videotaped episode and was defeated in his bid for renomination, is scheduled for Oct. 22. But the trial is likely to be postponed because the trial judge now is hearing the case of two former high FBI officials charged with approving illegal break-ins in search of the Weather Underground.
Thus Murphy, Thompson and codefendant Howard L. Criden probably will be the next to face a jury. Criden, a Philadelphia attorney who was a key middleman in the investigation, already has been convicted in the Myers case. Thomas P. Puccio, the prosecutor in Brooklyn, where the Thompson and Murphy case will be tried, had considered severing Criden from the case to compel his testimony against Murphy and Thompson.
But Justice officials said yesterday that a decision has been made to try the case without Criden as a government witness. A proposed affidavit describing Criden's role in the case shows that he could have testified that both Murphy and Thompson agreed to take part in the bribery scheme, but didn't want to handle any money personally.
Criden never signed the affidavit because he changed his mind about cooperating with the government when first confronted last Feb 2. The Washington Post obtained a copy of the document, which was filed in court under seal. It said Criden could testify that he gave Thompson payoff money for himself and Murphy.
Without Criden's testimony, the government's case apparently will depend heavily on the videotapes and the testimony of Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), who was named in the indictment as a co-conspirator but was never charged. Sources have said he talked about taking money, but never took any and thus will not be indicted.
Another target of the Abscam investigation, Sen. Harrison Williams (D-N.J.), also has not been charged. A decision on whether to seek an indictment in his case is expected within a month. His case is considered more complicated than the others because no cash changed hands and because the government agents may have been too aggressive in trying to get him to implicate himself.
The final Abscam trial involving a congressman won't take place until next January, when another Philadelphia Democrat, Rep. Raymond F. Lederer, faces bribery and conspiracy charges.
In each of these cases, members who are convicted also face penalties levied by the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct. The committee set a precedent for handling such cases when it recommended Myers expulsion.
Because the House is returning for a lame-duck session after next month's election, the ethics committee may have to wrestle with the Jenrette case. The committee's special counsel, E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., is expected to begin preparing a sanction hearing against Jenrette if he is reelected or if he is defeated and doesn't resign.