Public views Abscam on TV: Trial by videotape -- a first

"Abscam" is an FBI code name from the words "Arab scam." It also is the name for the developing and perhaps most sorry, sordid, and sensational congressional scandal in recent history.

In the comfort of their own easy chairs, the public on Oct. 14 could watch with a morbid interest the actual videotapes of the bribe offer -- and bribe acceptance -- made available to the news media by a decision of the United States Supreme Court.

"Guilty . . . guilty . . . guilty," said a federal jury 72 times last week as 12 jurors brought in their verdicts on six charges for two defendants and claimed their victims by technology. As $50,000 was offered to and accepted for Democratic Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. from South Carolina by his longtime friend, or bagman, John R. Stowe, the concealed cameras took in the scene, and the concealed recorders recorded it.

After a five-week trial, the jury accepted the evidence of the tapes, not the accused. It was as improbable a story as a fiction writer cold have devised: a supposed oil-rich Arab who wanted to hire a congressman to introduce legislation to let the bogus sheikh settle permanently in the United States.

The so-called "sting" operation (catching culprits by pretended collaboration) by the Federal Bureau of Investigation knocked out an earlier congressman by trial -- Michael "Ozzie" Myers of Pennsylvania. There are four more trials to go.

Nothing quite like this has ever been seen before in America, or probably in the world, and observers wonder if it will leave scars on Congress. The Supreme Court's decision that the videotapes of Myers could be broadcast came down Oct. 14. Next day, Washington Post television reviewer Tom Shales, in a typical reaction, found films "fuzzy, grainy, and black and white," but he acknowledged in awe that it was "changing the face of television and maybe of our legal system."

"You could hear Myers say, on Abc's 'Nightly News,' that 'money talks in this business' . . . and, on CBS's 'Evening News,' a disguised FBI agent, after giving Myers the loot, telling him to 'spend it well.'"

There is internal evidence that the FBI is concerned with what it has done and aware that the consequences may be far reaching. It is one thing to entrap common criminals, another to entrap congressmen. The bureau reputedly hastily disbanded the operation last February. The scandal became known by premature leaks to the press, beginning around Feb. 2.

The people purportedly began in 1978 in an attempt to lure individuals involved in organized crime into selling stolen securities and are objects to undercover FBI agents. Several such "sting" operations have been successful and highly publicized in the past. The Abscam investigation is associated with Neil J. Welch, head of the FBI's New York office, and monitored in Washington.

US Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti told a Senate appropriations subcommittee Feb. 5 that he had cleared the operation and been briefed regularly. President Carter told reporters he was unaware of it until he read about it in the papers.

Then came the fictitious Arab sheikh. The initial FBI aim was reportedly to buy stolen paintings. As the play progressed other sheikhs were invented, including one reportedly of Italian descent who spoke with broken New York accent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars went into the operation to give the aura of affluence, which required a yacht, a Washington home, an oceanside condominium, private planes, and crisp bribe money in thousand-dollar packages. Eight members of Congress originally were cited. Representative Jenrette allegedly asked for two $50,000 sums, to introduce a private immigration bill.

Congress is jealous of its good name. It is accompanying the jury trials with investigations by its own Ethics Committees. Though the juries hae spoke in two of six cases, supplementary legal issues are pending. Trial judges are examining claims that FBI tactics violated civil rights of defendants by entrapment, and their decisions may be months away. Still unanswered is why the FBI picked these particular congressmen.The House expelled Representative Myers Oct. 2, by a vote of 376 to 30, the first such explusion since 1861.

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