The seven jury convictions of members of Congress in the highly controversial Justice Department Abscam prosecutions come at a peculiarly awkward time. A sense of lassitude over the democratic process brought out only half of US voters in the November 1980 presidential election. Now comes another blow to public confidence in Congress in one of the worst scandals in legislative history.
Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey last week joined six House members and 11 other public officials and individuals found guilty by juries in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia of illegally using their influence. Senator Williams, a 28-year veteran of Congress, is appealing his sentence on the grounds of entrapment. He denies that he will resign.
Now begins a new drama as the Senate Ethics Committee meets this week to hand down its own verdict on the situation in the name of the upper chamber. Its chairman is Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming. It could recommend censure or expulsion. The conviction of Williams on criminal charges is believed to be the third in Senate history.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation set up a fictitious "script" in which an informer, Melvin Weinberg, headed a cast of "players," included an FBI agent in the role of an oil-rich Arab "sheikh." He offered lavish bribes of $50,000 to $ 100,000 in return for favors for the sheikh. Simultaneously, the latest techniques in electronic evesdropping and recording took videotape pictures of the scene in color and recorded the conversations, subsequently heard by juries and ultimately by millions of other people via television.
The episode leaves questions of FBI procedure, the extent of influence-peddling for money in Congress, and the efficacy of the democratic process itself, already damaged by the resignations of President Richard Nixon and Vice-President Spiro Agnew.
The Abscam investigation began in February 1978 when the FBI set up a scenario seeking to recover a Rubens painting stolen in 1966. It invented a millionaire "sheikh" who supposedly would buy the painting with oil money. Informer Weinberg turned out to be an apt actor in the baited trap and the painting was recovered as hidden cameras recorded the scene.
Additional cases led from the underworld to politicians. Involved in bribery conspiracy cases were the vice-chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, the mayor of Camden, N.J., a Philadelphia city councilman, five Democratic members of the House, one Republican member, and, finally, Senator Williams. Hidden cameras, elaborate scripts, the voices of the accused themselves, all seemed persuasive to juries in eight major trials. In the November election, five of the House members were defeated; the other, Rep. Raymond F. Lederer (D) of Pennsylvania, was reelected. But when the house Ethics Committee last week announced it would recommend his expulsion, he agreed to resign.
The jury found Williams guilty of illegally offering to use his influence in an immigration matter and to further a titanium mine in which he had a hidden financial interest.
Williams was elected to the House of Representatives in 1953 and to the Senate in 1958. He has been one of its influe ntial members, serving as chairman of the Labor Committee during the Carter administration.