Could a public figure who once declined to accept a gift of a single golf club from a friend on principle later take an 18 percent interest in a titanium mine for doing a political favor?
That is the gist of the defense argument in the Abscam trial of US Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr. (D) of New Jersey here.
"Have you ever attempted to influence a decision of the federal government at any time . . . for your own personal gain?" Senator Williams was asked.
Said the senator: "I certainly have not."
In his denials -- he also said he had never accepted anything of value in connection with his career in public life -- Senator Williams in essence also was denying that he was guilty of bribery and lesser charges in connection with the FBI's Abscam probe.
After nearly four weeks, the final Abscam trial was focusing on its highest elected official.
Immaculately attired, the gray-haired senator appeared alternately relaxed and tense as he recounted his early political ambitions, military record, first election to the US Senate, and, most recently, his involvement -- or lack of involvement -- in the FBI's sweeping inquiry into government corruption.
In series of questions by defense attorney George J. Koelzer, he was presented to the jury as a friend of labor, a man of great sensitivity for the nation's working men and women, a man who had by te sweat of his own brow parlayed his love of the labor movement and the New Deal, which grew out of his own experience as a steel mill employee and a day laborer in various other capacities, into the chairmanship of the powerful Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee. Although still a member of that committee, he lost the chairmanship when Republicans won a majority of US Senate seats last November.
Williams, in one of the most colorful bits of testimony relating to any personal benefit he might have received while in public office, told the jury his longtime friend and business partner, Henry --(Sandy) Williams, no relation to the senator, had early in their friendship offered him a golf putter that had a solid gold head. The senator said he was flattered by his friend's generosity but proceeded to "lecture him" about not giving away things that were family heirlooms.
Testifying for the prosecution under a grant of immunity, Sandy Williams said the senator had a hidden interest in a Virginia titanium mine. The prosecution contends that the interest in the mine was given in return for promising to get government contracts for the titanium.
Alexander Feinberg, co-defendant in this trial, testified earlier that he and Williams indeed had an interest in the mine and would disclose it once it became a "viable" entity.
Senator William's defense depends largely on discrediting prosecution witness Sandy Williams. In effect, the defense is trying to descredit most of the latter's business ventures as pipe dreams with little, if any, substance.
The senator admitted on the stand that Sandy Williams gave him a letter of agreement purporting to grant him part-interest in the titanium mine. However, the legislator dismissed this document as merely something he accepted from a friend so as not to offend -- but also as something that he felt had no intrinsic monetary value.
But the question remains -- and it is one implicit in the prosecution's arguments to date: Why was Senator Williams willing to go to such great lengths to talk to someone who later turned out to be an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheikh about helping him to provide government contracts for the mine if, in fact, as he contends, he was never going to influence the government erroneously to purchase titanium. The bogus sheikh was suppos edly going to lend the mine $ 100 million to start it up.