Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) came out of the Korean and Vietnam wars a Marine Corps hero, with the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. He was, in 1974, the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress, a symbol of the voters' ire over the Watergate scandal.
Perhaps the saddest scene on the secret Abscam videotapes is the spectacle of Murtha, with his untamed hair and assertive manner, dickering for financial favors with the supposed bagmen for a fictitious Arab shiek.
The bagmen, who were really undercover agents engaged in the FBI's most celebrated "sting" opearation, had $50,000 stacked in five neat piles in a desk drawer ready to hand over to Murtha. He refused to take the money, but his reason was hardly noble.
"I want to deal with you guys awhile before I make any transactions at all, period . . ." he told them. "After we've done some business, well, then I might change my mind . . ."
Still, he wanted them to understand that he was the best man the sheik could acquire in Congress. "I'm going to tell you this. If anybody can do it -- I'm not B.S.-ing you fellows -- I can get it done my way." he boasted. "There's no question about it."
But the FBI's undercover con men were eager to complete the payoff. "I've never backed down on a deal," pressed hawk-nosed Anthony Amoroso, who identified himself as Tony DiVito. "That's why I said to you a little while ago, I said to you that when I knew you were coming over, I assumed that I was going to give you the money."
But the reluctant Murtha wouldn't touch the $50,000. Here on secret videotape was this all-American hero, tall and dignified in a disheveled way, explaning why he wasn't quite ready to accept the cash.
"All at once," he said, "some dumb [expletive deleted] would go start talking eight years from now about this whole thing and say [expletive deleted], this happened. Then in order to get immunity so he doesn't go to jail, he starts talking and fingering people. So the [S.O.B.] falls apart."
Murtha suggested that the sheik start by investing in his district. "I'm talking about having a business connection . . .," the congressman explained, "a business commitment that makes it imperative for me to help him . . ."
"You give us the banks where you want the money deposited," offeered one of the bagmen.
"All right," agreed Murtha. "How much money we talking about?"
"Well, you tell me."
"Well, let me find out what is a reasonable figure that will get their attention," said Murtha, "because there are a couple of banks that have really done me some favors in the past, and I'd like to put some money in . . .
The dialogue continued as follows:
Amoroso: Let me ask you now that we're together. I was under the impression, OK, and I told Howard [middleman Howard Criden] what we were willing to pay, and I went out, I got the $50,000. OK? So what you're telling me, OK, you're telling me that that's not what you know . . .
Murtha: I'm not interested.
Murtha: At this point, you know, we do business together for a while. Maybe I'll be interested and maybe I won't . . . . Right now, I'm not interested in those other things. Now, I won't say that some day, you know, I, if you made an offer, it may be I would change my mind some day.
Later Murtha asked again how much the sheik might be willing to deposit in a bank the congressman would designate.
"Oh," said Amoroso, "I think a million dollars . . . ."
The figure aroused new enthusiasm in Murtha. He told the bagmen about a bank president who was a friend of his. "This guy, over the years I've been in business myself, he's loaned me a lot of money, and boy! They've been good to me, I mean good to me!
"And you think, I mean this guy has really a little bank, any [expletive deleted] thing I ever wanted, they were there. I always wanted to do them a favor. You know, it's that kind of a [expletive deleted] thing."
Murtha emphasized again how influential he was. "I'll be quite honest with you," he confided. "I've got as much influence in that [expletive deleted] Congress with the leadership and the White House as anybody in Congress . . . ."
Footnote: The Murtha episode was just a small, sad segment in the hours of Abscam videotapes, which my associate Gary Cohn has reviewed. The secret videotapes show that Criden later told undercover operatives that "Murtha's ready to go." This meant, according to government sources, that he had agreed to accept a cash payoff. But just hours later, the Abscam story broke wide open -- including mention that Martha had been caught in the net. He responded with righteous indignation that the undercover agents "didn't offer me any money and I didn'ttake any." He has not been indicted but has been named a co-conspirator in the Abscam case.