Williams Abscam trial the most complex yet

The trial of US Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey is markedly different from the previous ones, in which convictions of a number of congressmen and some local officials were fairly easily won.

What makes the difference is that Senator Williams, unlike other defendants, never took any money in return for promises to use his political influence. This is conceded by the prosecution.

A videotape made surreptitiously by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in January 1980 shows the veteran senator refusing a $20,000 payoff. The tape was played during William's trial in US District Court here on charges of bribery and conspiracy. The trial now is in its third week.

When FBI agents posing as representatives of an Arab sheikh offered a drawerful of money, the videotape shows, Williams walked away from it.

Because of the more complicated nature of the Williams case, chief federal prosecutor Thomas Puccio seldom cross-examines defense witnesses with the same swiftness and sense of authority he displayed in previous Abscam trials. The "moments" he asks the judge for in order to glance over material sometimes stretch out into minutes.

In a nine-count indictment, Williams, the only senator charged and the last of the Abscam defendants, is accused of bribery and conspiracy in promising to help a bogus Arab sheikh (really an FBI agent) obtain government contracts for a Virginia titanium mine in return for an 18 percent hidden interest in the mine.

A parade of defense witnesses, from former US Treasury Secretary Henry Fowler to a vice-president of GoldmanSacks Inc., an investment firm that gave advice to the mine promoters, have testified they at no time heard that the senator had a financial interest in the mine.

According to witnesses for the defense, even Henry Williams, the senator's former longtime associate and friend, whom the defense has tried to discredit because he testified against the senator after he was given immunity from prosecution, never told them Senator Williams had a financial interest in the mine.

But prosecutor Puccio released a document April 13 that purports to show that the lawmaker had an interest in the mine as early as March 1976. The defendant's attorneys say this is untrue. Also, a videotape played earlier in the trial shows Senator Williams discussing the mine with the FBI agents posing as representatives of a wealthy Arab -- and accepting a hidden interest in it. It shows Williams bragging about how he would use his influence to get government contracts for mine's potential titanium output.

Emerging as the senator's chief defense argument is the contention that FBI operatives illegally entrapped him into making such statements.

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