Often during his 22-year career as a US senator, Harrison A. Williams (D) of New Jersey has been described as "a compassionate, sensitive man," "a progressive lawmaker," and a "humanitarian."
This week, however, a federal prosecutor called him a "corrupt public official" who "sold" his office for an 18 percent interest in a Virginia titanium mine.
Senator Williams is the last of the defendants and the highest elected official to stand trial following the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) sweeping Abscam inquiry into government corruption. The investigation, which began in February 1978, has resulted in the conviction of six congressmen.
In a nine-count indictment, Senator Williams, the fourth senator in US history to be indicted while in office, stands accused of accepting part interest in a titanium mine in return for promises to channel Defense Department contracts to an Arab sheikh. The sheikh, as well as his representatives, turned out to be FBI agents in disguise who videotaped their meetings with Williams.
In a videotape shown to jurors in Federal District Court in Brooklyn April 1, Williams boasts about his influence with key government officials, including former President Jimmy Carter.
In an opening statement at the trial this week, the senator's attorney, George Koelzer, called the government's case "a fake, a lie, a disgrace." He termed the government's key witness, Melvin Weinberg, who helped convict other Abscam defendants, "the world's greatest con man."
Although federal investigators and defense attorneys throughout the Abscam trials have been highly critical of Mr. Weinberg's techniques -- defense attorneys said they constituted illegal entrapment -- the central questions facing the Williams jury remain: Was the senator "predisposed" to commit bribery and conspiracy? Or did Weinberg and other FBI operatives somehow coerce or entrap Williams to do something that he never would have done otherwise?
A key taped conversation between Weinberg, a convicted felon turned FBI informer, and Williams was used in the trial of convicted Abscam conspirator US Rep. Raymond J. Lederer (D) of Pennsylvania, still a member of Congress, to try to prove entrapment was used by the FBI -- to no avail.
This same taped conservation is expected to be a centerpiece of the Williams defense, because some federal prosecutors stated in a separate federal probe of Abscam tactics that Weinberg's actions violated the senator's constitutional rights.
The tape shows Weinberg imploring Williams to "come on strong" in his meeting with the bogus sheikh and his representatives. This meeting came just about an hour after Weinberg "coached" Williams "to play and blow your horn . . . and mention names you control."
As the videotape played in court this week reveals, Williams boasted about whom he would use his influence on to gain an 18 percent interest in the mine.