New York — You've seen similar scenes on the "late show" on television: An officeholder accepts a bribe in return for a political favor. But, in a "truth is stranger thatn fiction" turn of events, the scenario unfolding here in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn -- and simultaneously on 10 videoscreens -- adds a twist to the old plot that Hollywood writers apparently never imagined.
US Rep. Michael O. Myers (D) of Philadelphia and three other men went on trial here this week on charges of conspiracy and bribery in the "Abscam" (for "Arab scam") corruption case. The trials of 15 other people, including six other members of Congress, are expected to get under way within the next six weeks.
The government prosecutor's most important evidence in the current trial is a videotape depicting an undercover agent, posing as an agent for what turned out to be a bogus Arab sheikh, making cash payments in return for promises of influence. The Abscam jury saw the undercover agent hand Mr. Myers an envelope containing $50,00 -- with the congressman saying at one point: "I'm gonna tell you somethin" real simple and short. Money talks in this business . . . and it works the same way down in Washington."
But although attorney's for Myers have admitted their client took the money, which seems highly damaging to his case on the surface, the government must prove that a "corrupt promise" indeed was made in return -- and this is expected to e difficult despite the tapes.
Defense Council Richard Ben-Veniste has told the court that while the "fat Arab's money" was accepted, the defendants "never used their offices. They never did anything" for it.
But the prosecution has claimed that Myers agreed to submit a private immigration bill to permit the (mythical) Arab sheikh to stay in the United States.
Teh videotape shows Federal Bureau of Investigation undercover agent Anthony Amoroso, supposedly acting as an agent for thsi sheikh, in a room at the Travelodge International Hotel at New York's Kennedy Airport talking with Myers about what the congressman will do for the sheikh.
Says Myers to the agent in the videotape: "I have all sorts of people comin' from the Middle East and the OPEC countries that want to make deals and buy a little influence here." Again, it will be up to the jury to determine whether or not Congressman Myer's "promise" to help the mythical Arab was corrupt in and of itself.
This question, in fact, is the heart of the indictment against Myers and the three other defendants in this trial -- Camden, N.J., Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti , Philadelphia city Councilman Louis C. Johanson, and Mr. Johanson's former law partner, Howard L. Criden, according to US Appeals Court Judge John O. Newman. Judge Newman, wrote in a 21-page decion last week, rejecting a motion to dismiss the charges: "This indictment focuses the inquiry squarely on whether the money was taken and whether a corrup promise was made."
The lawyers for Myers had asked Judge Newman to dismiss the case basically on grounds that the FBI had employed "entrapment." (Entrapment is using deception to induce someone to commit an illegal act that he would not otherwise perpetrate).
But the judge rejected this argument in cosidering the dismissal motion, although it will also be used by the defense in this and other Abscam trials. Judge Newman noted that "any member of Congress approached by agents conducting a bribery 'sting' operation can simply say no."
Judge Newman also rejected a defense request that the jury be sequestered during the trial.