Entrapment will be key issue as Abscam cases linger in courtrooms

Anthony Amoroso Jr., the FBI special agent who posed as an employee for a make-believe Arab sheikh in the undercover Abscam probe, was awaiting his turn to testify in the bribery trial of US Rep. Richard Kelly (R) of Florida, now in progress here. Special agent Amoroso said he expects to spend the next year going in and out of courtrooms for Abscam trials.

Yet he will be long gone when the cases are finally are closed. The issues raised in these trials will linger in the trial and appeals courts for at least two more years, as lawyers haggle over whether Amoroso and his partner, a con man turned FBI agent, unfairly tempted public officials to accept bribes. Several of those charged in Abscam are using entrapment as a defense.

So far, juries have not been divided: In five trials, all of the defendants have been found guilty, although none has been sentenced.

The one setback for the Department of Justice has been in Philadelphia where District Court Judge John Fullam threw out the jury's verdict against two city officials and ruled that the Abscam probe in his city had entrapped defendants.

The investigation "was plainly designed not to expose municipal corruption, not to determine which officials were corrupt, but merely to ascertain whether, given enough inducement, city officials could be corrupted," said the judge in his 64-page ruling. The Justice Department now is appealing in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and the case almost certainly will work its way to the Supreme Court.

Justice Department officials, while defending the undercover probes in general terms, will not speak in detail about Abscam while cases are still in the courts.

Irvin Nathan, deputy assistant attorney general, says that in political undercover probes, the government works through "middle men" who are known to have underworld contacts. These "middle men" are then asked to find officials who will accept a bribe.

"What the government does is provide an opportunity into which people who have some criminal disposition will come," says Mr. Nathan.

One critic of the technique, John Shattuck of the American Civil Liberties Union, says, "It appears that the net was cast too broadly." He says that the Federal Bureau of Investigation should have "some evidence to indicate that a person is likely to commit a crime" before it conducts an undercover probe.

Law Prof. Stephen Gillers of New York University law school says that nothing in current law requires the FBI to prove "probable cause" before targeting any person. The government must merely prove that the defendant charged in an undercover probe had a "predisposition beyond any reasonable doubt" to commit the crime.

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