Murtha and the FBI: The Director's Cut
By David Holman
Published 9/29/2006 12:10:14 AM
For more than 26 years, Congressman John P. "Jack" Murtha (D-Penn.) has not been truthful about his involvement in Abscam, court records and the complete video of his meeting with the FBI show.
In recent years, only a 13-second video of Murtha's videotaped meeting with the FBI agents was publicly available. TAS has obtained a copy of the full, original video from a source close to the Abscam investigation on the condition of anonymity. The court transcript is publicly available at the National Archives. (To see the full video, click here. For a transcript of the meeting, click here.)
Murtha has repeatedly maintained his innocence in the Abscam sting operation, even as recently as this year. However, his November 20, 1980 testimony in the trial of Congressmen Frank Thompson (D-N.J.) and John Murphy (D-N.Y.) and the FBI's complete undercover video of his January 7, 1980 meeting with its agent and informant reveal a man showcasing his political influence and apparently tempted to take a $50,000 bribe. On the tape, Murtha appears eager to arrange his own, long-term deal with the supposed representatives of Arab sheiks, and to cut out Thompson and Murphy. His testimony reveals that after his January 7 meeting, he looked into helping the sheiks enter the country, rather than contacting the FBI or the Ethics Committee, of which he was a member. Through the years, Murtha has maintained that he only met with the FBI agents to discuss investments in his district. His testimony, the video, and the cases of other congressmen snared in Abscam suggest that "investments in the district" was a common Abscam defense for those accused of bribery.
Abscam's Path to Congress
Abscam, short for "Abdul scam," began "as a simple exercise in catching crooks," Bob Greene wrote in his book The Sting Man. The FBI had caught a professional con man named Melvin Weinberg, who was soliciting advance fees for overseas loans which would never materialize.
When one mark did not buy Weinberg's stalling, he handed the matter over to the FBI. A federal grand jury indicted Weinberg for wire fraud in 1977, and the FBI had a warrant out for his girlfriend's arrest. Weinberg negotiated a plea agreement: he would plead guilty and work as an informant for the FBI, if the feds would drop charges against his girlfriend.
Federal agents and Weinberg began investigating small-time swindlers pushing fake certificates of deposit and stolen paintings, but soon realized that a standing sting operation was necessary. In March 1978, the FBI moved into Long Island offices bearing the name Abdul Enterprises, Ltd.
Depending on the target, the sting's story was that Weinberg represented an Arab sheik. The sheik usually needed to get money out of Middle Eastern banks, which, marks were told, were barred from lending money "at interest because of Islamic laws against usury," Greene wrote in The Sting Man. To withdraw the money, Abdul needed fake certificates of deposit, which he would give to his banks and exchange for cash.
The Abdul story got incredible mileage. One particularly gullible crook submitted a list of proposed fraud and graft projects for Abdul to finance. Weinberg noticed several deals went through the mayor of Camden, N.J., Angelo M. Errichetti. Weinberg and Abdul Enterprises approached Errichetti about investing in the Camden seaport and opening a casino in Atlantic City. From there, Errichetti put the Abscam investigation in touch with corrupt politicians all over New Jersey: from the casino gaming board to the state house to U.S. Senator Harrison A. Williams.
With Philadelphia just across the river from Camden, Errichetti also led Abscam to Pennsylvania targets. He introduced Weinberg and the FBI to Howard Criden, a little known Philadelphia attorney with thorough contacts in city and state politics. Once Criden caught a whiff of the money that Abdul was offering those with power, he became Abscam's middleman in Washington, D.C.
For the politicians, Abscam's cover story changed a little: the sheiks were nervous about unrest in the Middle East and would pay politicians for private immigration bills. Contrary to the charges that Abscam was an entrapment operation, it didn't need to entrap anyone -- once Criden spread the word of money for favors, politicians came to Abscam. Senator Williams and six members of the House of Representatives were eventually convicted in connection to Abscam. Murtha was never indicted.
Murtha's Accounts of His Abscam Involvement
If one were to believe Congressman Murtha, he met with men whom he believed to be representatives of Arab sheiks on January 7, 1980, to discuss "investments in his district," with the object of bringing in jobs. After news of the Abscam investigation broke and FBI agents fanned out around Washington notifying their targets on February 2, 1980, Murtha told reporters, "I did not consider that any money was offered, and certainly none was taken, and the FBI who taped the entire conversation knows damn well no money changed hands." The February 9, 1980 Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report echoed that story, reporting Murtha as saying, "I assumed the lawyer was going to make the $50,000 [bribe].... Then later I thought, 'Their lawyer's getting $50,000 and he's not worth too much because [he] doesn't even know how to get his client into the country.'"
That story continues to this day. The USA Today reported in its 2004 candidate profile of Jack Murtha, "He declared he was innocent, saying he had 'met with two men who I believed had a substantial line of credit that could provide up to 1,000 jobs for the district. I broke no law. I took no money.' A grand jury and the House ethics panel cleared Murtha of any wrongdoing."
And in a February 2006 interview with John McLaughlin, Murtha said he told agents he was not interested in a bribe: "I said, 'I'm interested in investment in my district, period.'" In the same interview, Murtha did not dispel the eager McLaughlin of the notions that calling him an "unindicted co-conspirator" is a "crude, cheap, and actionable smear" and that the ethics committee "exonerated" him. Murtha said he only had "two votes against out of 17 counts. I mean, it was -- it cleared completed [sic]. That was in the grand jury stage of it, for heaven's sakes."
"Some Walking-Around Money Involved"
Murtha's claim that he thought he was meeting to discuss investments in his district is only half true: he knew for weeks beforehand that there would be bribes involved. In late October or early November of 1979, Murtha testified, Congressman Frank Thompson approached him on the floor of the House. He told Murtha there were some rich Arabs who might be willing to invest in the district. "He wanted to get two more Congressmen involved. ... But all we would have to do is help these two Arabs get into the country perhaps sometime in the future."
About a week later, Thompson sat next to Murtha on the floor of the House. Murtha testified that Thompson said he had checked the Arabs out -- they had hundreds of millions of dollars. (Abscam had a banker at Chase Manhattan who would "verify" the size of their bank account if any marks called to check.) This time, though, Thompson said, according to Murtha, "And there would also be some walking around money for the three Congressmen involved." In direct examination, Thomas Puccio, the government's lead prosecutor on the case, then asked, "Did Mr. Thompson say how much walking-around money?" "He said $50,000," Mr. Murtha replied. "What did you understand walking-around money to mean?" Mr. Puccio asked. "Cash," Mr. Murtha said. Murtha knew since the first half of November 1979 that the Arabs were offering bribes.
Thompson pursued the matter with Murtha through the end of the year, finally securing a meeting for Murtha's first day back in town: January 7, 1980. Thompson phoned Murtha on January 7. He said that Howard Criden, an attorney arranging meetings with members of Congress for the Arabs' representatives, was in his office and Thompson would like Murtha to meet Criden.
Murtha went over. After some small talk, Thompson told Murtha that he would go with Criden to the Arabs' house in Georgetown, where Criden would "pick up the money." Murtha testified that he repeatedly demurred and said that he was "just not prepared to get involved with the money." He said that he twice almost walked out of Thompson's office at Thompson's and Criden's insistence that Criden would pick up the money. At one point, Thompson said, "You go down and Howard will pick up the money and we will split -- that the three of us will split the money." Murtha testified in cross-examination that when he went to the W Street townhouse, he knew there was a "possibility" that he could be bribed by going there or a bribe offer could be made there.
Before Murtha left Capitol Hill, he knew the terms of the meeting: he was going to a strange townhouse, with a strange lawyer he had not met before that day, to meet with strange representatives of strange sheiks from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Thompson explicitly told him that Criden would pick up the money for the three congressmen, Thompson, Murphy, and Murtha, to split three ways. Despite his account of protesting to this situation, he went along.
On W Street
At the W Street townhouse, Murtha tried to set the terms for his future involvement, bragged about his influence, and apparently tried to cut out Criden and the other congressmen. And the agents certainly did offer money: $50,000. Murtha testified that there was no doubt in his mind that $50,000 was being offered to him. Steve Kaufman, attorney for Congressman Thompson, asked Murtha in cross-examination, "You feel you were offered a bribe when you went to W Street?" Murtha answered, "Yes, I feel they were offering me money, yes."
The 54-minute video is a long dance between Murtha, Criden, and agent Tony Amoroso (undercover as Tony DeVito). Weinberg was in the room for most of the meeting, out of the camera's visual range, but in a supporting role, particularly when Amoroso left the room. Yes, Murtha walked out of that house without any money and did not return. But the video casts doubt on Murtha's claims that he was only interested in investment in his district. We already know that Murtha was not interested in the money "at this point" and that he bragged, "If anybody can do it -- I'm not B.S.-ing you fellows -- I can get it done my way."
The complete video suggests why the deal did not work out. When Amoroso mentions paying to get the Arabs into the U.S., Murtha repeatedly tells them that they "don't need to spend a goddamn cent on this thing," or "I honestly don't think you have any problem." But when given a chance to back out of the deal altogether, Murtha instead brags about his influence.
I haven't been here a long time but I know the right people and I know the system and I went to the ballgame with the president -- in other words there were three of us -- me, Tip [O'Neill, speaker of the House], and that's it -- so I've got as much influence, and I know as much about the goddamn workings as any -- you're not going to have any trouble. And there's no use me telling you are going to have any trouble -- and I'm not going to be flippant about the son of a bitch -- you're not going to have any trouble. Now, to introduce legislation would be the last thing that you'd want done -- in other words what should be done, and I mentioned this to Howard before, should look into this thing to see exactly what the circumstances are about the situation -- now that I know a little more about it I can tell you, in a week or so, I can tell you exactly what. I have a guy who has more influence in immigration than anybody in Congress. He and I are like that. He can tell me in five minutes if there's gonna be a problem. If anything can be done, if anything can't be done, and I honestly don't think you got a problem.
On the video, Murtha does not appear to be a man uninterested in money. He appears to be uninterested at that point. Interpretation of the nuances of this conversation may be subjective, but Murtha appears essentially to say, You don't need Thompson and Murphy. I'm the guy who makes it happen.
Later on, while Amoroso and Criden have stepped out of the room, Murtha tells Weinberg that he wants to be "completely independent":
Lemme tell you something. You came to the right guys in order to get it done. And I think the way I'd handle it, you know, Murphy, and the other guy, they got, all three [Murtha, Murphy, and Thompson] of us got things we can each do. Each of us got different responsibility in a different area. But I want to do business with you. I mean I want to get the goddamn jobs in the area, you know, a few bank deposits in my area. Nothing I'd like better. Later on, after we've dealt a while, we might change our mind -- we might want to do more business. But right now, I think I can do more this way than any other way. I think I can do more by being completely independent, if you understand what I mean. And listen, it's hard for me, shit it's hard for me to say, just the hell with it. But I think this is the way I can do the best, the most good.
WEINBERG: Get them squared away there.
MURTHA: Now, these other guys are expecting, no question about it, they're expecting some, uh...
WEINBERG: Well that's no problem as long as you tell Tony. You wanna go one-on-one with Tony, that's up to you.
MURTHA: Well I'm just telling you, they're expecting...
WEINBERG: Why don't you tell, lemme get Tony in here, you tell him that, alright? And tell him what you want to take from them. That's all.
MURTHA: Well I am not gonna get involved. Let Howard handle that part of it. Howard is your intermediary. And now if you guys don't trust Howard...
Minutes later, Murtha again emphasizes that he has a separate "deal" and agrees with Weinberg that they should "be a little cautious."
...whatever you guys work out with them [Thompson and Murphy] is entirely... what I'm saying, my deal is one thing. And you've heard my deal. My deal is the jobs and the other thing and of course having some tie to the district. That's my deal. And whatever you guys work out with them, that's your deal.
WEINBERG: You explain to Tony. Like I said, we'll stay out of the room. I think that's best. This way just the two of you knows. Hearsay. Let's be a little cautious, alright? Better be cautious than sorry.
MURTHA: Yep, that's true, that's right.
Preferring hearsay over more witnesses suggests Weinberg wants to avoid evidence admissible in court. And Murtha agrees.
From the video, Murtha seems to warm to a separate deal, but gets cold feet when Amoroso and Criden disagree about who would get the money and what it was for. Late in the video, Criden and Murtha step away from the meeting room to speak privately. (This sidebar occurs at some point in the gap in the video between 12:30:30 and 12:32:50 on the timestamp.) Murtha and Criden walk back into the room:
CRIDEN: John says that it is okay for you to give me what's in that drawer.
MURTHA: Is that all right, Tony, let me make it very clear. The other two guys [Thompson and Murphy] do expect to be taken care of, as Howard. And you're gonna have to deal through Howard. Me, you've got my deal. You know, so that's, that's, my deal is, is...
CRIDEN: We have a deal.
AMOROSO: Wait a minute, hold up, you know...I'm giving you...I'm giving you [points to Murtha]...see he's, you know, we're going round and around about this whole thing --
CRIDEN: You're giving me, and I'm going to do what's right with everybody...
Murtha watches Criden and Amoroso go back and forth. Amoroso is upset that he and Murtha cannot have a direct deal, without Criden and the congressmen. After a couple minutes of the bickering, Murtha stands up, buttons his coat, and says, "We're going home. You deal with Howard. Howard, you do what you want to do." It appears that Murtha loses interest at the same time as Amoroso: when they figure they cannot cut out the middlemen.
"Investments" in the District
Although Murtha maintains that he only intended to discuss "investment in my district," the video and the cases of his fellow Abscam congressmen suggest that is a thin defense. First, most of the convicted Abscam congressmen, including Thompson and Murphy, argued that they were only meeting with the sheiks' representatives to discuss "investments" in their districts. Rep. Raymond J. Lederer (D-Penn.) said after he was indicted that the FBI's tape of his meeting "will show that I was there to bring investments" for his district. Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. (D-S.C.) "testified that he was only trying to help his longtime friend... obtain a loan to salvage a munitions plant in [his] district and thereby save 500 jobs for his constituents," according to a 1980 Washington Post report. Similarly, Rep. Michael J. "Ozzie" Myers (D-Penn.), who was convicted and expelled from Congress, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that any politician being promised heavy investments in his district would have kept dealing with the sheik's agents.
Second, throughout Murtha's testimony and the video, the investments and the money seem closely related, both for Amoroso and Murtha. While Murtha tells them that he is not yet interested in the money, he holds out investments in his district as the first step. Why? Perhaps so that the Arabs can prove that they are serious customers. And Murtha even seems to spell it out as a cover story:
I'm talking about... a business commitment that makes it imperative for me to help him. Just, let me tell you something, I'm sure if, and there's a lot of things I've done up here, with environmental regulations, with all sorts of waivers of laws and regulations that if it weren't for being in the district, people would say, "Well, that son of a bitch, I'm gonna tell you something -- this guy is on the take." Well once they say that, what happens? Then they start going around looking for the goddamn money. So I want to avoid that by having some tie to the district. That's all. That's the secret to the whole thing.
As long as there is a business commitment, or an investment in the district, no one looks for the money. With that explanation, such investments appear to have dual purposes: good politics, and good cover.
At another point in the conversation, though, Murtha appears to restrict the deal to the Arabs placing money in banks in his district.
...as I look into this thing, it may be that [placing money in the banks is] the only way I can do business, by being completely dependent on, you know, listen, I need the goddamn money like anyone else does. But, you know, this thing may be so sticky that I know that it's gonna take a lot of goddamn work, and if it's going to take work, the only thing that can justify it is, is, is that goddamn investment in my district.
It is not clear where investments in the district end and the "walking around money" begins. But Thompson mentioned to Murtha the money as part of the investments and helping the Arabs on the floor of the House, and in his office before Murtha went to the townhouse.
Who Did Murtha Call?
After the sheiks' representatives offered Murtha the bribe and investments in his district on January 7, who did Murtha call? Not the FBI. In fact, when the FBI talked with him on February 2, he was not truthful about his contacts about the investments with Congressman Thompson or his January 7 meeting, Thompson's attorney revealed in cross-examination with Murtha. Murtha did not report to the agents that he was offered money, or that Thompson discussed splitting money with him. He told the agents that he never had any indication of money having been paid to Thompson. He also told the FBI that Criden first called him to arrange the meeting, though he later testified it was Thompson who first called.
Did he call the Ethics Committee, of which he was a member, or Tip O'Neill, the speaker of the House, to report the bribe offer? Murtha testified that he did not report any of Congressman Thompson's statements or anything else to the Ethics Committee or to anyone else in Congress.
But Murtha did call his guy in immigration. He testified that within one week of the townhouse meeting he spoke to an immigration official about getting the sheiks into the country. Sometime after that call and after January 21, Murtha ran into Thompson at the voting slot on the House floor. There, he told Thompson that he had "talked to Immigration and [Murtha] thought something could be done." Whatever Murtha expected in return, be it friendship, or investments in his district, or "walking around money," he was doing what he told the sheiks' representatives he could do.
Was Murtha "Ready"?
Whether Jack Murtha was ready to take the money is a question only he can answer. Before Amoroso and Weinberg could meet with Murtha again, leaks to the press stopped the undercover investigation. NBC's Brian Ross (now with ABC) knew of the investigation for months before it broke. NBC parked a van outside the townhouse, photographing visitors, according to the February 18, 1980 issue of Time magazine. Reporters were eager to break the story, but they agreed to wait until February 2, when the FBI would notify subjects of the investigation. NBC staked out congressmen's homes that day and had footage of agents visiting them for that evening's Nightly News.
According to contemporary newspaper reports at the time that Abscam broke, Howard Criden told investigators that Murtha was "ready to go."
He reportedly cooperated with the FBI from February 2 until the evening of February 3, when he saw early editions of the front-page New York Times account of his cooperation, which was leaked to the press. Criden and the FBI had already prepared an affidavit, which he had yet to sign. The July 13, 1980 Washington Post reported, "Criden said in the unsigned affidavit, 'Thompson indicated to me that Congressman Murtha of Pennsylvania would be willing to enter into an agreement similar to that of the other congressmen.' At a meeting in Washington in January, Murtha didn't take any money, though the plan had been that Thompson would receive $20,000 to share with Murtha, Criden said. 'Yesterday, [Feb. 1] Thompson called and told me that Murtha was ready to go. (He had indicated... during January that he was not ready to do business but would be willing to do so in the future.)'"
Once Criden saw the leaked story, he stopped cooperating. And therefore, he never signed the affidavit.
Trials and Votes
Murtha eventually cooperated with the prosecutor Thomas Puccio. He testified in the Thompson/Murphy trial that he was doing so voluntarily. When he went before the grand jury in June 1980, he was told that the government was seeking to use him as a witness and would not seek an indictment. Murtha testified that he did not "have a deal" with the prosecution. Puccio did not return a call to his private law office last week.
As for the Ethics Committee, Murtha was no longer a member by the time his case came before it in 1981. The Committee ended the investigation of Murtha in July 1981 by a 6-6 party line vote. As I wrote in the September TAS, E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., the Committee's special counsel investigating Abscam, resigned later that day, apparently in protest. Prettyman would not discuss the case, citing attorney-client privilege.
But Don Bailey would. At the time he was another Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania serving on the Ethics Committee and considered himself a friend of Murtha. He told TAS that he "successfully made the arguments that saved Murtha from admonishment." Though he now regrets defending Murtha, Bailey thought the FBI overreached in investigating members of Congress.
Asked about the Committee's deliberations and the McLaughlin/Murtha exchange, Bailey disagreed that Murtha was "exonerated." "What the Ethics Committee did not do was summon enough votes to punish him," he said.
Abscam was a close call, especially for a congressman now seriously campaigning to lead House Democrats if they win the chamber this fall.
But this is not the first time Murtha has had leadership on his mind. At the W Street townhouse he told Weinberg,
...I have it a little different. [Congressman Murphy] doesn't expect to be in leadership. I have to be more careful. That's what it amounts to. I expect to be in the fucking leadership of the House. And you have anything said against you then you've got a problem. So you've got to be able to justify it. And I'm just avoiding having any problems is what it amounts to.Steve Kaufman, Thompson's attorney, read that comment to Murtha in cross-examination and asked, "Do you remember saying that?" "No," Murtha answered.
"Do you expect to be in the leadership of the House?" Kaufman then asked.
David Holman, a contributing writer to The American Spectator, is a first-year law student at the College of William and Mary. You may email him at dave[dot]c[dot]holman[at]gmail[dot]com. John M. O'Hara, The American Spectator's editorial assistant, helped with this article. For a transcript of the tape discussed in this story, click here.
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