The jury in the Abscam bribery trial of Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D-N.J.) began deliberating early this evening after an emotional plea from his attorney to reject a government effort to "frame" the senator by "putting words in his mouth."
After meeting for four hours, the jury of eight men and four women retired for the night.
The defense attorney, George J. Koelzer, told the jury that a government agent posing as an Arab sheik had to offer the senator a bribe at a Jan. 15, 1980, meeting because the government had failed to entrap him in criminal activity during months of videotaped meetings about a titanium mine.
"They were all ready to punce . . . but one thing went wrong. He turned them down," Koelzer said, referring to Williams' refusal to take money for introducing an immigration bill for the sheik. The defense attorney said it was particularly offensive that undercover FBI agent Anthony Amoroso interrupted the meeting after the senator said no, so he couldn't explain his reluctance for hidden FBI cameras.
"Does that sort of conduct make you proud to be an American?" Koelzer said of the government's action. "For me, it breaks my heart."
Williams, 61-year-old former chairman of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, and co-defendant Alexander Feinberg are charged with bribery and conspiracy for allegedly agreeing to trade the senator's influence in getting government contracts for titanium for a $100 million loan to develop the mine. Williams also held a hidden interest in the mine, the indictment charged.
If convicted, Williams would be the first sitting senator found guilty of criminal conduct since the turn of the century.
If convicted, williams would be the first sitting senator found quilty of criminal conduct since the turn of the century.
At the end of his 3 1/2-hour summation Koelzer said to the jury: "You are about to go out and judge the life of an honored, respected, dignified, beloved senator." He said William gave his life to public service, championing the rights of migrant workers, coal miners, and other laborers.
"Are you going to brand a man a criminal, ruin his life, destroy his life based on innuendo and suspicion" from the likes of Amoroso and undercover informant Melvin Weinberg? Koelzer asked. "I hope and pray not."
At one point, Koelzer said of Amoroso and Weinberg, "a convicted con main": "I'm telling you they could go to Calcutta and get Mother Teresa [Nobel Peace Prize winner] for Medicare fraud."
Koelzer spent much of his time attacking the conduct of the government, and Henry A. (Sandy) William III, who testified against the senator to escape prosecution himself. Although he never used the word "entrapment," he was clearly laying that out as one of his avenues of defense. He called the prosecution "cruel, baseless, vicious, unwarrented and evil."
Referring to a June 28, 1979, session where Weinberg urged the senator to boast of his fluence at a meeting with the sheik, Koelzer said, "I tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that it is fundamentally wrong to put words in someone's mouth and then prosecute him for it."
The videotape of that June 28 meeting with the sheik shows Williams bragging that he could talk to the president about the titanium venture and saying it would be "No problem" to get government contracts for it.
In his final words to the jury, chief Abscam prosecutor Thomas Puccio again emphasized the importance of the videotaped evidence. He mocked Koelzer's attempts to "deflect the jury's attention" from the senator's conduct before the hidden cameras. "Mr. Koelzer did not answer what is on those videotapes," he said.
Parrotting Koelzer's langage, Puccio asked, "Does Sen. Williams' conduct make you proud to be an American?" "Who is the disgrace? Who is the fraud? Who is the sham? Who is the phony?
"Is it the senator caught in the act of breaking the law or is it the agents who caught him?" Puccio characterized the trial as a tragedy for the senator. But he added, "The real tragedy is for the voters and people of the state of New Jersey and the United States, who reposed their trust in the senator, who violated it."