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!
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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,
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.
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