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ABSCAM Senator Williams Resigns

By Patrick Mondout

On March 11, 1982, the U.S. Senate prepared to vote on a resolution expelling Abscam figure and fellow Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey. Before the resolution reached a vote, however, Senator Williams offered his resignation to the President of the Senate, apparently believing both that the Senate would launch a full investigation of the ABSCAM activities of the Justice Department, and that the expulsion resolution would receive the two-thirds vote necessary for passage unamended. Had he chose to fight on, he would have become the first U.S. Senator since the Civil War to be expelled by his colleagues.

Senator Williams had been found guilty of bribery charges in May of 1981 and was finally released from prison in 1986 after a two-year term.

The Senate did vote on a motion compelling all Senators to be present at what was to be expulsion vote. The Senate debated the issue at that time and held what remains the only vote on the issue. The vote was 97-3 with only Barry Goldwater, William Proxmire, and Dan Quayle voting against the resolution.

Goldwater's vote was curious as he had earlier said on 60 Minutes that "Yes, I think it's fair - I don't care how dishonestly it turned up, I think it should be turned up" when he was asked by Harry Reasoner whether the FBI's tactics were fair.

What follows are the positions of the the pro-expulsion and anti-expulsion camps within the Senate as recorded by the Republican Policy Committee chaired by John Tower.


Those favoring the resolution contended: "This resolution represents the unanimous judgment of the Select Committee on Ethics that Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., be expelled for conduct which showed a fundamental disregard for the Senate and the honor of its Members. His representation to an alleged Arab sheik that he would use his influence as a U.S. Senator to help a titanium venture in which he had a hidden interest to obtain Government contracts, his search for a commitment from the sheik for a $100 million loan, his expressed interest in providing for his financial security upon retiring from the Senate, and the amount of time and attention he devoted to the details of these transactions comprise behavior deemed ethically repugnant by the Ethics Committee. It is the video tapes that constitute the "smoking gun" of this case--indeed, a "smoking machinegun." Senator Williams' dilemma comes from his own gross misconduct, not from the poison of nefarious outside sources. He stands convicted of his own misdeeds. The issue here is at the core of democratic government--the faith people extend to political institutions. In this case, Senator Williams' actions have reduced public confidence in elected officials. It should be noted that Senator Williams himself stated that his will was not overborne. Absent a showing of overborne will, misconduct by the Government, though reprehensible, nevertheless has no bearing on the present proceedings. It should also be added the Senator Williams was not targeted by the FBI, the Justice Department, or the Carter White House. It is clear and undisputed that he sought out Abdul Enterprises; he directed his lawyer to contact them about the financial endeavors. Furthermore, and despite suggestions to the contrary, Senate committees have been charged in the past with the responsibility of reviewing allegations of misconduct and have recommended expulsion where a Member was found to have engaged in the receipt of bribes or gratuities, or in severe conflicts of interest, as Senator Williams has been found to have done. However, in the previous cases, Members in question either resigned or were defeated or, in one case, died prior to Senate action on the committee recommendations of expulsion. If a member of this body really knows right from wrong, of he or she truly believes that a public office is a public trust, that member would not hesitate for a moment to get up and walk away from obvious impropriety. But Senator Williams did not. He stayed, he discussed, he agreed, he promised, he pledged, all this to abuse his office, his public trust, for which now he must be expelled."


Those opposing the resolution contended: "This resolution threatens the historical integrity of the Senate in two ways--it would expel a Member for the first time where treason or disloyalty to the Union is not involved, and it implies acquiescence by the legislative branch to the invasion of the executive in the criminal ABSCAM investigation. In history, the 15 Senators who have been expelled were all expelled on grounds of treason--the last one 120 years ago. The FBI created a trap in the form of its ABSCAM investigation, then goaded and cajoled Members of Congress into that trap, and we are supposed to condone that action now by finding Senator Williams' role in one such scam "ethically repugnant." We must, therefore, reject it. The record will show that agents of the executive branch created this corruption out of whole cloth, and that this manufactured kind of corruption is unworthy of the FBI as an institution and unworthy of our consideration and our approval. The record will further show that the investigation of Senator Williams indicates that the Department of Justice will initiate a criminal investigation without any reasonable basis to believe that the individual is inclined to commit a crime. The now infamous ABSCAM investigation began as an FBI undercover operation to recover stolen art works and stolen certificates of deposit. Part of that investigation included the establishment of an imaginary line of credit through the Chase Manhattan Bank, on the basis of which a large number of innocent businessmen in this country have had their businesses and professional reputations ruined--a tragic side effect of ABSCAM. But soon after the search for stolen art and certificates of deposit proved unsuccessful, Mel Weinberg, the convicted criminal/financial adviser to the investigation, shifted from art and securities to politicians, and, in the case of Senator Williams, to a politician about whom they had no suspicion that criminal activity of a given type or pattern was occurring or was likely to occur. According to an internal memo, in fact, the investigators admitted that they would have to recontact Senator Williams in order to obtain an overt action and to elicit a desire on the Senator's part to have his financial interest hidden. The fundamental principle on which the existence of the Senate as an independent and coequal branch of Government depends is undermined by Justice Department activities of this sort. All Senator Williams did was indicate his desire to help his constituents by bringing some investment to his State. He may have acted foolishly, and he should have known better, but a Senator needn't be expelled for acting foolishly. In short, Senator Williams committed no criminal wrongdoing and demonstrated no corrupt or venal motive. He was helping some friends obtain financing for a legitimate business enterprise, in which he had no financial interest. He never promised to obtain Government contracts for the enterprise. He admits to being guilty of misjudgment and of boasting unwisely about his influence--but nothing more. Further, he was a victim of manipulation, entrapment, and pressure of the FBI and its hirelings. The Government went to extraordinary lengths to nail him; they refused to accept the fact that he had no criminal intentions; and whatever he did must be taken in the context of outrageous Government pressure and misconduct. Cases of financial misconduct or misuse of office have always resulted in Senate censure or condemnation. In the interest of protecting this body from the excessive punishment recommended in this resolution on the one hand, and from the repugnant invasion of the legislative branch represented by the ABSCAM investigation, we should reject this resolution."

Pardon This!

Though President Clinton seemingly gave every high-profile white collar criminal short of Michael Milken a pardon on his last day in office, he failed to give one to former Senator Williams, who maintains his innocence.



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Senator Williams of New Jersey in happier times.

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