"It's sad, because we're in a period in which people don't really trust their public officials. Abscam tends of confirm their worst stereotype about them." So comments Richard Uviller, professor of law at Columbia University and one of the nation's top criminal law experts, as a jury begins to decide whether US reps. John Murphy (D) of New York and Frank Thompson Jr. (D) of New Jersey are guilty of promising to use their influence in Congress to help fictitious Arab sheiks overcome US immigration obstacles for $50,000 apiece.
"I keep hoping for one of the Abscam defendants to get up and face the music, " Professor Uville continued.
In the five Abscam trials to date, none of the congressmen or other public officials indicted have admitted to charges of bribery and conspiracy despite the government's "secret weapon" -- videostapes plainly showing them acknowledging the acceptance of envelopes or -- in the case of Congressmen Murphy and Thompson -- briefcases containing cash from FBI undercover agents.
Only Reps. John Jenrette (D) of South Carolina and Murphy and Thompson have denied taking the money. Mr. Jenrette was subsequently convicted by a Washington jury on charges of bribery and conspiracy.
But, according to Uviller, sequences on the tapes -- as federal prosecutor Thomas Puccio's peppery summation pointed out here Dec. 1 -- show clearly that defendants Murphy and Thompson knew both what was in the briefcases and that they were going to be the ultimate recipients of the contents.
At one point in this latest trial Mr. Puccio asked Thompson in cross-examination why he reached for a briefcase stuffed with $100 bills. Replied thompson: "Mr. Criden put it very close to my foot. . . . I handed it to him as a matter of courtesy."
Howard L. Criden, a lawyer from Philadelphia who is not on trial in the current case, already has been convicted on charges of bribery and conspiracy in a previous trial, along with former US Rep. Michael Myers (D) of Pennsylvania.
Criden, however, appears throughout the fabric of the Abscam tableau. In the current trial, defense attorneys have argued that he lured Murphy and Thompson to meetings with undercover agents but never cut them in on any of the $100,000 he received.
Referring in part to Thompson's testimony that he never knew that money was in the briefcases, Puccio declared in his summation: "He lies, and lies, and lies."
In another taped sequence involving Murphy and a briefcase containing $50,000 , the congressman is seen telling Criden: "Howard, why don't you take it?" when one of the FBI agents places the case in front of them. Puccio asked the jury in ringing tones: "Wouldn't he [Murphy] say, if he didn't know what's in that suitcase [as Murphy's attorney has claimed]: 'What's in that suitcase?"
Thus, while the jury here did not actually see either Murphy or Thompson taking possession of the briefcases, Puccio argued that their claim that they didn't know what was in them weakens the heart of their defense which is that the longevity and effectiveness of both men in Congress can be traced to their high order of intelligence and honor. Yet on the tapes, the undercover agents are heard to say in no uncertain terms what is in the cases.
Uviller says congressmen cannot be as intelligent as claimed and yet as ignorant of the facts in the case.
Meanwhile, the dismissal by a US district judge last week of the convictions of two Philadelphia officials for their part in Abscam -- on grounds that they were "entrapped" by the FBI -- is not expected to affect the New York case. Entrapment was not used as a defense here.