Protecting crime probe witnesses

The federal program for protecting witnesses who testify against organized crime, target of recent criticism, is facing a problem here that could affect the willingness of some potential witnesses to collaborate with the government.

The Witnesses Security Program of the US Marshals Service is designed to help threatened witnesses relocate and assume new identities after a trial. For someone not deeply involved in crime, such a change can be "traumatic," says an official with the Marshals Service. The program has been under pressure from the US Senate to improve its care of relocated witnesses.

Now a key witness in a major federal case against organized crime's influence in the nation's ports refuses to relocate. In spite of new indications of apparent attempts to kill this witness, the government says its 24-hour protection of the witness is about to end. In its place, the Marshals Service is offering what the witness, Miami shipper Joey Teitelbaum, considers inadequate funds even for one-man, 24-hour guard service by a private detective agency.

What may be at stake, according to one Senate staff source closely familiar with the Witness Security Program, is the willingness of other potential witnesses who do not want to relocate to come forward.

"The problem is economic," says an official with the Marshals Service. Based upon the number of marshals assigned full-time to Mr. Teitelbaum and his family -- up to 18, working in three shifts -- the costs could easily exceed $1 million a year, the source says. The total budget this year for the Witness Security Program is $19 million, intended for the protection of some 400 persons, according to the Marshals Service.

Protection ends after relocation. But from the start, Mr. Teitelbaum said he did not want to relocate. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, made such a strong case on his behalf that protection has been provided since his cooperation with the FBI became public early in 1977.

"Why should I [move]?" asks Mr. Teitelbaum. "My business is here, my family, all my ties are right here in Miami."

Unless a satisfactory solution is reached, he told the Monitor, "I'll never testify again."

His testimony in court last year helped convict nearly 20 officials of the International Longshoremen's Association or persons associated with them in payoff schemes in Southeastern ports. The convictions are on appeal. If the case were handed back to the lower courts for a new trial (which some officials think may happen), his testimony would be needed again -- but that does not mean he would have to appear in court. Transcripts of his earlier testimony would be admissible evidence in a new trial if he did not appear, one official says.

Recently there have been "some new threats" to Mr. Teitelbaum's life, says Atlee Wampler, US attorney in Miami. If anything happened to him, "it would have a terrible effect" on the informant program, Mr. Wampler says.

Sen. John C. Culver (D) of Iowa, who heads a Senate subcommittee on the judiciary, recently asked the Marshals Service for a progress report on past problems with the Witness Security Program. There has been "significant progress," a subcommittee staff members says.

Problems previously cited include: delays in getting new identity documents, lack of help in securing employment, and lack of assistance to other family members relocated.

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