How close did Rep. Jack Murtha come to accepting a bribe in Abscam? The full tape of his meeting with the FBI, now available for the first time, shows just how close!
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
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.
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