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Still More On Murtha’s Ignored Abscam Past

From the latest issue of the American Spectator:

From the FBI surveillance tape, Murtha: "I’m not interested. I’m sorry… at this point."

The Full Murtha

Washington is a forgiving town, at least to Democrats. Generally, scandal-tainted Republicans are given little quarter. John McCain is the most outstanding exception, and campaign finance reform is his ongoing penance. In the absence of such surrender to the Democratic agenda or a retreat from Washington altogether, the disgraced politician does the smart thing: lies low. Congressman John P. "Jack" Murtha (D-PA) did precisely that for almost 25 years after his entanglement in "Abscam," an FBI investigation in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Then last November, Murtha re-emerged as the Democrats' main spokesman on the war in Iraq, loudly advocating the withdrawal of American forces. No flash in the pan, Murtha appears intent on remaining a media darling. In June, hoping that Democrats take over the House, he mounted a brief campaign for U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer's position as the number-two Democrat in the chamber.

Despite months of Murtha's noise, the media have offered little more than an abridged account of his 16-term tenure in the House of Representatives. When he made his splash last year, newspaper reports suggested that Murtha was a well-known hawk, a conservative even, who reluctantly, heroically, turned against the war. Yet to most political junkies, he was unknown. A flattering profile in the Washington Post last fall devoted all of one sentence to Murtha's "ethical scrape" in Abscam. Some outlets have reported the basic facts of Murtha's run-in with the law, but have pretty much ignored the rest of his career.

So who is Jack Murtha? One of the greatest behind-the-scenes operators in the House, he is an old-school congressman whose recent outspokenness is out of character-and perhaps a sign of desperation.

Before Abscam, Jack Murtha was a rising politician. A native of southwest Pennsylvania, Murtha twice enlisted in the Marine Corps and served one tour in Vietnam, where he was highly decorated. From the Pennsylvania statehouse, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in a special election in 1974. He was quickly noticed by House leadership and apparently headed for its ranks, earning a slot on the Appropriations Committee and a role as a floor whip.

But his power-broker style made him a ripe target for the Abscam investigation. A sting operation hatched by the FBI in the late 1970s, Abscam had undercover agents offering bribes to senators, congressmen, and local politicians in return for official services on behalf of fictional Arab sheiks. After Abscam became public in 1980, six congressmen and one senator were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. Murtha wasn't among them, but he was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the case. Although Murtha did not accept a bribe, he failed to turn the undercover agents away.

The media's avoidance of Abscam isn't for lack of colorful details. According to reports, an FBI videotape of the meeting shows Murtha, quite confident in his large influence with Congress and the Carter White House, interested in dealing with the undercover agents. A 13-second clip of the meeting was discovered by conservative media earlier this year and disseminated on the Internet.

TAS has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the full tape, which the FBI was still processing at the time of publication. But an August 6, 1980, Washington Post column by the sometimes controversial, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative columnist Jack Anderson, overlooked in recent reporting on Murtha, fills in some of the gaps. Anderson framed Murtha's performance as "perhaps the saddest scene on the secret Abscam videotapes…. He refused to take the money, but his reason was hardly noble."

The column continues, quoting Murtha speaking to the undercover agents:

"I want to deal with you guys awhile before I make any transactions at all, period…. After we've done some business, well, then I might change my mind…."

… "I'm going to tell you this. If anybody can do it – I'm not B.S.-ing you fellows – I can get it done my way." he boasted. "There's no question about it."…

But the reluctant Murtha wouldn't touch the $50,000. Here on secret videotape was this all-American hero, tall and dignified in a disheveled way, explaining why he wasn't quite ready to accept the cash.

"All at once," he said, "some dumb [expletive deleted] would go start talking eight years from now about this whole thing and say [expletive deleted], this happened. Then in order to get immunity so he doesn't go to jail, he starts talking and fingering people. So the [S.O.B.] falls apart."…

"You give us the banks where you want the money deposited," offered one of the bagmen.

"All right," agreed Murtha. "How much money we talking about?"

"Well, you tell me."

"Well, let me find out what is a reasonable figure that will get their attention," said Murtha, "because there are a couple of banks that have really done me some favors in the past, and I'd like to put some money in….["]

In the following exchange with an undercover agent, part of which appears on the 13 seconds of available videotape, Murtha leaves the door open for later negotiations:

Amoroso: Let me ask you now that we're together. I was under the impression, OK, and I told Howard [middleman Howard Criden] what we were willing to pay, and I went out, I got the $50,000. OK? So what you're telling me, OK, you're telling me that that's not what you know….

Murtha: I'm not interested.

Amoroso: OK.

Murtha: At this point, you know, we do business together for a while. Maybe I'll be interested and maybe I won't…. Right now, I'm not interested in those other things. Now, I won't say that some day, you know, I, if you made an offer, it may be I would change my mind some day.

It is damning stuff. But the mainstream media have yet to question Murtha aggressively about even the short snippet of available tape, much less the full reel.

Recent articles about Jack Murtha have also ignored the House Ethics Committee's handling of his case. After considering his role for a year, the committee in 1981 voted in secret to end the investigation, by a 6-6 party-line vote. E. Barrett Prettyman Jr., a prominent Democratic lawyer serving as the committee's special counsel investigating Abscam, resigned that afternoon. Roll Call asked Prettyman in 1990 whether he resigned because of the Murtha vote and he called that "a logical conclusion." When contacted by TAS recently, Prettyman said that shortly after the vote the committee informed him that he worked directly for the committee and not Congress in general, so the attorney-client relationship barred him from discussing the Abscam investigation.

Within months of the conclusion of the Ethics Committee investigation, Murtha's colleagues hailed his political survival. Though discounted for a leadership post, he resumed his role in the House as a quiet, skilled operator. A 1985 Washington Post profile called him "a political deal maker more comfortable in the back rooms of Congress than on the set of Meet the Press." In a place populated by the likes of Tip O'Neill, Murtha earned a reputation as "possibly [the House's] premier political operator," according to the profile. O'Neill told the Post, "He loves political intrigue. He likes to deal. He puts the votes together, make no mistake about it."

Sometimes, he put the votes together without Democratic leadership knowing it. When a hubbub erupted in 1989 over a bill giving then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley use of his own military jet, Foley's office denied knowledge of the effort. But the word was that Jack Murtha was responsible for the stealth amendment. At the time, the Los Angeles Times identified him as "a behind-the-scenes operator with close ties to House Democratic leadership."

Murtha remains a well-known advocate for such congressional privileges, especially pay raises. This skilled parliamentarian has repeatedly slipped pay and honoraria limit increases into bills-leaving his colleagues dumbfounded, according to press accounts.

As the second-highest ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, Murtha is a master of another form of congressional spoils: the earmark. According to Rob Gleason, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, Murtha is part of the "old school who considers money spent outside the 12th District foreign aid," referring to his congressional district.

In the late 1990s, he proposed a series of reforms, such as a bill reining in federal prosecutors, and an amendment requiring the House Ethics Committee to quit an investigation if the committee is deadlocked for six months. Murtha also sought to have the Department of Justice reimburse members of Congress for their legal bills if they are charged but not convicted.

Murtha was rarely quoted by reporters throughout the years, and refused interviews even when his actions were the subject of news reports. Michael Barone noted this public reticence in the Almanac of American Politics:

Murtha is also one of those old-time politicians who operate best in secret, holding court in the back corner of the House chamber where he trades gossip and votes to colleagues who crowd around him as if they were kissing his ring…. He speaks for attribution to few national or local reporters, hardly ever appears on television, and rarely speaks in the House chamber except for the annual defense spending bill.

Before last year, Murtha was also a quiet campaigner. Bill Choby, his Republican opponent in five elections from 1990 to 2002, told TAS that Murtha's campaign style "was limited to handing out pork money immediately before an election, edited press releases, one-minute interviews before the safe local media, and 30-second commercials catered to the retired voters."

Even when facing political ruin in the form of Abscam, Murtha only briefly spoke publicly about it: "I did not consider that any money was offered and certainly none taken," he told reporters at the time. "The FBI who taped the entire conversation knows damn well no money changed hands." Murtha chose his words carefully, revealing no more than what was already publicly available.

For a man who long resisted the camera-seeking style of congressional politics, the new Murtha is an abrupt shift in style and substance.

He "used to be a low-key guy, under the radar," said Gleason, who has known Murtha for over 30 years (their hometown is Johnstown). Now "his conduct has changed" to "political chestbeating." Not to mention verbal recklessness. In a recent interview, Murtha offered that American troops in Iraq could redeploy to Okinawa, a claim that analysts and the media widely derided. And Murtha's new positions are making waves in Pennsylvania. "Everybody is shocked that he criticized the President and the troops," said Gleason, who also noted that Murtha was once a strong pro-life vote in the House. "I never even detected a pro-choice vote from him until this year," Gleason said, in reference to Murtha's votes in support of embryonic stem cell research.

Some commentators suspect that Murtha's recent volubility is an attempt to deflect attention from new ethical problems. The Los Angeles Times reported in June 2005 that Murtha's brother, Robert C. "Kit" Murtha, is a Washington lobbyist whose firm, KSA Consulting, reeled in more than $20 million for its defense contractor clients from the House defense appropriations subcommittee. Murtha is the ranking Democrat on that subcommittee, which he also chaired for six years before Democrats lost the House in 1994. KSA directly lobbied Murtha's office on behalf of these clients.

In the wake of the Times story, Roll Call reported last year that the House Ethics Committee may investigate the KSA matter. Ethics Committee staff director William O'Reilly would neither confirm nor deny any ongoing or potential investigations. After Murtha called for withdrawal from Iraq last fall, Investor's Business Daily asked, "could Murtha have been thinking about a possible ethics investigation when he decided to throw himself into the public limelight last week?"

Murtha's behavior seems to confirm such suspicions. His opposition to the war is his constant shield against criticism or damaging revelations. When Cybercast News Service questioned Murtha's Purple Hearts from the Vietnam war, his spokeswoman said, "We certainly believe that the questions being raised are an attempt to distract attention from what's happening in Iraq." He similarly dismisses any questioning of his Abscam role.

His strategy is not so nefarious, said Gleason. "He's obsessed with getting back in the majority. He is upset that the President doesn't invite him to the White House."

But Gleason predicts that his new national presence is endangering his re-election hopes. "It's not sitting well with the people in the 12th District," he said. For the first time since 1990, Murtha could be facing a formidable challenger. The Republicans have fielded Diana Irey, a young, attractive Washington County commissioner running a professional campaign. A recent poll shows that only 43 percent of Murtha's constituents support his anti-war comments.

So why pursue such a strategy? "He feels invincible," Gleason said. "I think he feels that when he unleashes his war chest in the fall and reminds people of the jobs and money he brings home, they will overlook the anti-war stuff." Maybe Jack Murtha will have to lose his seat before he wishes he had remained the quiet power broker from Johnstown.

— David Holman, "The Full Murtha," The American Spectator, September 2006

This seems to only be available as yet from Rep. Murtha's opponent in the upcoming Congressional elections, Diana Irey's site.

But check out David Holman's earlier article on John "Cut & Run" Murtha at Amercan Spectator, The Rest Of Murtha's FBI Tape.

This article was posted by Steve on Wednesday, August 30th, 2006. Comments are currently closed.

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