Williams trial comes down to videotape snippet

After nearly five weeks of often complex, repetitive, and sometimes comical testimony and cross-examination, the final Abscam trial has boiled down to this:

A small, less-than-three-minute segment of covertly made videotape, on which are electronically recorded the key video and audio evidence on which the prosecution has rested its case.

This tape, made by FBI agents in August 1979 shows US Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey agreeing to use his influence with the White House to get government contracts for a mining venture in which he would have an 18 percent hidden interest.

The case is expected to go to the jury April 29. The jury must decide, not whether undercover agents abused their power -- US District Court Judge George Pratt will not include aspects of whether the defendant's constitutional rights were violated in his charge -- but whether Senator Williams was "predisposed" to committing bribery and conspiracy.

Williams's testimony, under blistering cross-examination, displayed a central theme evident in the August 1979 videotape: He repeatedly, especially in the latter part of his 22 years in the US Senate, displayed a tendency to use his political influence in return for personal reward.

Item: The senator admitted that he had used his influence to obtain favorable treatment for a gambling enterprise seeking a casino license in Atlantic City -- an enterprise for which his wife was a paid consultant.

Item: In a taped phone conversation between Williams's codefendant, Alexander Feinberg, and FBI operative Melvin Weinberg, Mr. Feinberg (who was also Williams's personal attorney) told the FBI man, "The senator has often opened many doors." Prosecutor Thomas Puccio, in his summation, explained that this meant "using one's office to obtain an objective."

Item: The senator also admitted in cross-examination that he had received more than $100 from his longtime friend and associate, Henry Williams (no relation), for helping him to obtain a business loan. Previously, he testified that he had never accepted anything of value from anyone during his career in public office.

But these glimpses -- of what Puccio hopes will more than adequately demonstrate to jurors that the senator was predisposed to accepting a bribe in connection with the titanium mine -- are really only secondary to the even stronger evidence on videotape.

"What do you do, ladies and gentlemen, when you are caught redhanded on videotape?" Puccio asked jurors rhetorically. He then answered his own question by saying that the senator's testimony -- contending that all he was doing in telling FBI agents he would use his influence to get government contracts for a titanium mine was "baloney" -- was itself "baloney."

At one point in his summation, Puccio told the court that "It is hard to go through this with a straight face, but I'll try." He was referring to the senator's description of a bogus Arab sheikh (impersonated by an FBI agent), which included a reference to the sheikh's "soft eyes." However, as the prosecutor pointed out, the so-called sheikh, was wearing dark glasses all the time he met with Senator Williams -- as one videotape shows.

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