FBI Director William Webster was accused on Capitol Hill yesterday of dealing with "flakes" and "sleazebags" who went "out of control"and brought innocent victims into his agency's undercover Abscam investigation.
Called before a House Judiciary subcommittee to defend Abscam, Webster conceded, "There isn't any investigation we can't learn from, no investigation we can't improve upon. Abscam is no exception."
As a result of the investigation, which was run by FBI agents posing as representatives of phony Arab sheiks, six House members and one senator were convicted of bribery and related charges. A number of other politicians also were convicted in the operation.
Webster said that overall, "I think we came out pretty well. The courts have sustained us."
But members of the subcommittee, including Rep. William J. Hughes (D-N.J.), who was targeted for an Abscam bribe, questioned whether the FBI made enough effort to protect the rights of innocent citizens. The investigation depended on the efforts of con men Joseph Silvestri and Mel Weinberg, who enticed politicians by offering large bribes in exchange for assistance on immigration matters.
Hughes, who was approved for a bribe offer by Webster on the recommendation of Silvestri, but never agreed to a meeting with the con man, asked Webster to tell him what he had done that "injected my name into the scum of an Abscam."
"I know the depth of your feeling," Webster replied. "You did not come to the meeting . That was a commendable decision on your part. Silvestri said you would come . . . It was nothing you did or said to an agent of the government. You were a name advanced by Silvestri ."
Hughes, controlled throughout the exchange, told Webster, "When you deal with sleazebags, and Weinberg was a supersleaze, you have to maintain pretty good control, otherwise you trample on individual rights . . . . There was never any control . . . over the influence peddlers."
He warned Webster that even though an innocent person may walk away from the bait, "the damage is done at that point . . . The reputation is already stained."
"What differentiates us from a police state. . . ," he said, "is that we have certain basic protections for innocent people."
Webster said that in any investigation like Abscam, the names of innocent people will be mentioned. "The corrupt influence-peddlers talked at length about their political connections and in the course of their discussions, many additional names were mentioned. Some of these turned out to be mere puffery."
Rep. Don Edwards (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee on civil and constitutional rights which conducted the hearing, asked Webster about a number of innocent businessmen who lost large amounts of money when they were lured into the Abscam net by Silvestri. Some have sued the government.
"You are setting these forces in motion where they the corrupt middle men can go out and do immense damage--especially a flake like Silvestri," Edwards charged.
"I think it's a misconception to say we created Silvestri. . . ," Webster replied, "or any of the influence peddlers. They were there."
The FBI director was also asked about furniture, fur coats and other clothing and items that FBI agents working on the Abscam case bought or accepted as gifts from Weinberg. Although they apparently did not violate any law, Webster said, "There is a high potential for the appearance of a conflict of interest. It is not appropriate to accept gifts."
Webster said the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility "is aware of this." It is expected to conduct an inquiry into the gifts and purchases when all Abscam litigation is concluded.