Abscam trial lesson: TV is convincing
New York — The messages from the first of the "Abscam" political corruption trials seem clear: (1) The government has won a major victory, and (2) videotaped evidence is hard to refute.
Chief federal prosecutor Thomas P. Puccio said the verdict -- all four defendants were found guilty on each of three counts of bribery and conspiracy -- "vindicated" FBI undercover investigators.
The evidence was literally presented to the jurors in federal district court here in black and white -- on closed-circuit television.
Said juror Sam Baz, a machinist from Brooklyn, following the announcement over the weekend of the verdicts: "We all agreed unanimously, and it was the videotapes that convinced us." Other jurors expressed similar views.
They saw a confident, well-dressed US Rep. Michael Myers (D) of Pennsylvania accept an envelope containing $50,000 after pledging to help an Arab sheikh seeking political favors. It later developed that there was no such sheikh and that the people who gave Mr. Myers the money were undercover agents for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Yet, as two other Abscam trials get under way Sept. 2 -- one in New York and the other in Washington -- questions remain about the controversial way in which the probe was conducted:
* Were the defendants -- in some instances -- prodded into promising to commit illegal acts by undercover agents? The agents -- on videotape, at least -- never mentioned that what the defendants were engaged in was illegal.
In the future, if a pending US Justice Department guideline on covert operations goes into effect as expected, undercover agents will have to spell out to subjects of such probes what is illegal. Moreover, legal experts add that an appeals court -- and all four defendants, chief of whom is Myers, indicate they will appeal their convictions -- is much more likely to focus on whether the FBI used entrapment as its chief tactic than was the trial court here.
Myers, along with Camden, N.J., Mayor Angelo Errichetti and the other two defendants in the trial face maximum sentences of 15 years in prison.
* Was the chief "live" witness for the prosecution -- convicted swindler Melvin Weinberg -- working for one of the defendants (Mayor Errichetti) at the same time he was helping to conduct the Abscam probe? And did Weinberg tell Errichetti -- and through Errichetti, Myers -- that all they would have to do in front of the undercover agents was play-act and that it would not be necessary to follow through on promises of political favor for the bogus sheikh?
* If, as has been revealed, top US Justice Department officials were displeased with the overall "performances" of the undercover agents, including Weinberg, why weren't these agents sufficient "rehearsed" so they would do better?
Asked by a reporter after the first Abscam trial here if he were "going to Hollywood," undercover agent and witness Michael Wall quipped: "I'm having enough trouble just getting back to Philadelphia." But legal experts say there are serious overtones to Mr. Wall's reply. On the videotapes, he is seen bringing up the subject of additional payments to Myers without Myers having asked about them first -- further fueling accusations that the FBI tried to entrap politicians willy-nilly.
Another FBI operative, who did not testify in this trial, was asked if the Abscam agents received any special training for this probe. "We didn't," he said.
Meanwhile, US Rep. John Murphy (D) of New York and Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. (D) of New Jersey also are to be tried here on charges of bribery and conspiracy , along with Philadelphia attorney Howard L. Criden. The latter already is one of the four convicted in the first Abscam case.