A senator's future: a lingering Abscam question

Nobody could have imagined the scene. The supposed representative of a fabulously rich Arab sheikh, who was actually an FBI informant with a tape recorder under his coat, discussed proposed favors from a United States senator about a titanium mine. Video tapes recorded the scene.

Now the Senate Select Committee on Ethics unanimously is urging the Senate to expel its heretofore honored and veteran colleague, who is now appealing his conviction on charges of bribery and conspiracy.

If Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey, a Senate veteran of 22 years, were alone in the so-called "Abscam" affair, it would be bizarre enough. But six members of the House also have been convicted in the same operation.

The situation raises questions on a national level. Do the convictions cloud the reputation of Congress? Are so-called "sting" operations -- the tempting of suspected criminals in fake situations -- legitimate, or do they constitute entrapment? Is it appropriate to use the same procedure for congressmen as for drug peddlers and foreign spies?

Questions of this sort are likely to continue in a situation in which there is evidence that the forces of the law waded out deeper than they wished.

On Aug. 24 the Senate Ethics Committee after a 7-hour hearing found that Mr. Williams had committed 9 of the 14 things of which he was accused, and unanimously recommended expulsion. It also advised, however, that the Senate take time to study the mass of documentation and Williams's appeal.

Williams has repeatedly rejected resignation, claiming that he committed only indiscretions.Not since 1862 has the Senate expelled a member.

The FBI inquiry began with an investigation of stolen paintings and organized crime. By February 1981, juries had convicted Senator Williams and five members of the House. The FBI used the same procedure in each case: Undercover agents with concealed tape recorders masqueraded as businessmen and wealthy Arab sheikhs, while video tapes caught the scene.

One feature of Abscam is leaks to the press.

The undercover investigation proceeded and expanded for several years before the leaks came. On Feb. 2, 1980, the Long Island newspaper Newsday divulged details of the operation.

Other papers followed with descriptions of bribery efforts. NBC News stationed vans in front of the homes of several of the congressmen in order to film FBI agents informing the accused that they had been caught in the bureau's web.

Williams was charged on the basis of a complicated business scheme which included a $100 million loan from "Sheikh Yassir Habib" for a titanium mine and processing facility in Piney River, Va. The sheikh was actually Richard Earhart , FBI special agent. "Habib" purpotedly wanted business and immigration favors from the government. In return for influence in getting contracts, Williams allegedly was given shares in the mining enterprise.

Questions remain: Were the congressmen "entrapped"? How far should the FBI go in pushing "sting" operations? Why were there premature leaks?

Entrapment involves enticing individuals into commiting crimes that would otherwise not be committed. Williams claims that he was tempted by the FBI. Aside from his own fate, Williams has affronted the dignity of the Senate and more is likely to be heard of it.

The hearing before the ethics committee in closed session took the form of a trial, with spokesmen defending Williams on one side and the case against him presented by special counsel Robert Bennett who urged expulsion as soon as possible. The lawyer defending Williams urged the ethics committee to consider the senator's pending appeal on which the US District Court is expected to rule in October.

Committee doors opened and reporters rushed in. Chairman Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming announced that the committee had found, on the evidence before it, that Williams's conduct "was ethically repugnant to the point of warranting his expulsion from the United States Senate."

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