Casino gambling in Atlantic City is emerging as one major focus of the FBI's probe of congressional bribery. FBI sources say US Sen. Harrison Williams, Jr. (D) of New Jersey -- already the target of the "Abscam" probe for allegedly helping undercover agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtain a government contract for a bogus Arab sheikh -- also is under investigation for this alleged role in trying to help a casino license applicant.
Meanwhile, Joseph Lordi, the $60,000-a- year chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission (CCC), dropped a bombshell at a press conference Feb. 5 with an announcement that the FBI has requested individual interviews with the five remaining members of the commission.
At the same time, Mr. Lordi vehemently denied new allegations in a copyrighted article in the Philadelphia Inquirer Feb. 5 linking him to Senator Williams and the senator's alleged attempt to improperly influence the CCC.
The newspaper said the FBI has a video- tape of Senator Williams speaking to undercover agents and saying bluntly that he had spoken to Mr. Lordi on their behalf and saved them (the undercover agents) a great deal of money in getting a casino license. Senator Williams also has denied the newspaper's allegation.
The disclosure that Senator Williams is the subject of an investigation connected to casinos is another in a series of jolts that has hit the New Jersey gambling industry in the last several days. On Feb. 4 Kenneth MacDonald, vice-chairman of the CCC, resigned under pressure after allegations surfaced that he had taken a $100,000 bribe in the Abscam operation. Mr. MacDonald denied Feb. 4 that he took the money.
Mr. MacDonald does admit freely that he was "approached" by "representatives" of a wealthy Arab who wanted him to use his influence to help them get a casino license for their boss. These representatives, it has become known, were FBI undercover agents participating in a "sting" operation. In reality, there was no such Arab.
While the alleged cash payments did not involve a real company trying to get a license, the FBI prove into Senator William's casino connection involves a firm that not only exists but also has formally applied for a casino license before the CCC.
That firm is Ritz Associates, a consortium based in Atlantic City. Mr. Williams's wife, Jeanette, has served as a public relations consultant to one of the Ritz firms.
Albert W. Merck, another of the CCC members, told the Monitor Feb. 5 that "the whole thing" -- meaning the FBI allegations against Mr. MacDonald -- "had shamed us all," a reference to the entire commission.
However, Mr. Merck quickly added that there is a sharp distinction between the allegations against Mr. MacDonald and those against Senator Williams. In the allegations against Mr. MacDonald, he said, "the licensing process itself was not tainted." That is, an actual applicant for a license was not involved. "Even if MacDonald did take the money, he did not take it from any prospective casino licensee," Mr. Merck said.
Since Ritz Associates is an applicant, however, the allegations against Senator Williams are potentially more serious, Mr. Merck indicated.
A third subject of the FBI's investigation linking casinos to the Abscam operation is New Jersey state Sen. Joseph Maressa, who also is a practicing attorney. (State legislators in New Jersey may continue to practice law while in office.) Mr. Maressa has admitted to several newspapers that he received $10, 000 in "legal fees" from FBI undercover agents acting in behalf of a nonexistent Arab businessman seeking help in obtaining a casino license. The New York Daily News Feb. 5 quoted Mr. Maressa as saying, "the Arabian Nights portrait these two agents painted was such that I felt like it would be patriotic to take some of this OPEC oil money and get it back to the United States."
Sources close to New Jersey Attorney General John Degnan said he may prosecute those implicated by the FBI under two state statutes: one covering bribery of public officials and the other misconduct in office.