Echoes of Abscam in Jefferson Corruption Case

The case against Rep. William Jefferson, a Democrat from Louisiana, includes a videotape made of the congressman allegedly accepting a suitcase full of cash. It's not the first time a member has been accused based on such evidence. A generation ago, several members were caught in a sting operation known as Abscam. Some of the arguments raised in that case may be heard again in the Jefferson case.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

The case of Congressman Jefferson is not the first time the FBI has videotaped elected officials allegedly accepting bribes. 25 years ago, the corruption scandal known as Abscam implicated seven members of congress. An undercover FBI agent pretended to be a wealthy Arab investor and offered the lawmakers cash in exchange for preferential treatment.

Here's some audio from the FBI's undercover recording, which was used at trial.

(SOUNDBITE OF COVERT FBI RECORDING)

ANTHONY AMAROSO: In a short period of time I'm expecting US Congressman Michael Ozzy Meyers and Mayor Angelo Aragetti(ph). Placed in front of me is $50,000 in $100 denominations.

NORRIS: That was undercover FBI agent Anthony Amaroso. All of the officials caught by the sting operation claimed they were not guilty.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports at how people who have been videotaped taking bribes have tried to defend themselves.

ARI SHAPIRO: In the summer of 1981, New York Democratic Congressman John Murphy was sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy and bribery. Outside of the courthouse he tried to put his finger on why his defense had failed.

JOHN MURPHY: I think with the video type of evidence where there is no ability for a defendant to respond to it unless he has his own producer and his own actors and directors at the given time and point to refute it.

SHAPIRO: If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video may be worth several years in prison. When Richard Venbinisti(ph) represented one of the Abscam defendants, his client claimed that there were exonerating conversations that took place off camera. Venbinisti knew the case would be a challenge.

RICHARD VENBINISTI: It's extraordinary difficult because there is natural skepticism that the explanations are simply after the fact justifications for a conduct which is otherwise improper or illegal.

SHAPIRO: The jury ruled against his client as juries did with every other official charged in Abscam. The prize for most creative defense went to Republican Congressman Richard Kelly of Florida. After the FBI taped him stuffing $25,000 into his pockets, Kelly claimed he was actually staging an investigation into the people who were trying to bribe him. And when Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Michael Ozzy Meyers went on national TV to proclaim his innocence, well this was his explanation.

MICHAEL OZZY MEYERS: I took money because I like money, because I got greed and also because I'm poor. I feel I didn't do anything wrong and if anybody offers me $25,000 this afternoon, I will take it.

SHAPIRO: Many of the officials implicated in Abscam claimed entrapment. Peter Viro(ph) was US attorney in Philadelphia at the time.

PETER VIRO: The defense says well it wasn't our idea, it was yours, law enforcement people. Yeah, we were weak and fell into it but we really did not intend to commit a crime. The idea of the crime was you, the law enforcement officers.

SHAPIRO: He says investigators often worry that they're creating a crime where there wasn't one before. Joe Furavonti(ph) was another Abscam prosecutor. He says the government can protect itself from entrapment claims by getting plenty of evidence that the target intends to commit a crime.

JOE FURAVONTI: When you're on videotape taking cash and talking about what you can do in exchange for it, it doesn't leave you a lot of options. I now do defense work to a great extent but would not want to defend that case.

SHAPIRO: In that current case, Congressman Jefferson has not yet described what his defense will be.

WILLIAM JEFFERSON: There are two sides to every story. There are certainly two sides to this story. There will be an appropriate time and forum when that can be explained and explicated.

SHAPIRO: His choice of defense may depend on exactly what the video shows. The FBI hasn't released it yet and Jefferson hasn't even been charged with anything. Irv Nathan worked at the Justice Department during Abscam. He says there may be reason to believe that the video in this case is not enough to win a conviction on its own.

IRV NATHAN: I would say that in light of the quite controversial search of the offices of the congressman that the government obviously believes it needs additional evidence to the evidence it otherwise has. And that says to me it doesn't have the definitive proof that there was in Abscam.

SHAPIRO: If and when the congressman is charged, then both sides will have to reveal their strategies.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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