Monday, November 26, 2012

Mel Weinberg, Eric Holder, and the Horrors of Abscam (part 1)
by Ronald Kolb
Back in 2006, I was the person who uncovered the 1980 Murtha Abscam videotape. After contacting David Holman at the American Spectator, who arranged to retrieve it, the tape was eventually made public through both the Spectator and Fox News. John Murtha (D-PA) was attempting to become House Majority leader, and was defeated in a landslide by Steny Hoyer (D-MD).
It took me six weeks of pursuing leads until I located the tape. Eventually, I was given the name of retired Newsday reporter Robert Greene. After initially refusing to tell me, Greene then gave me the name: Mel Weinberg.
After tracking down Weinberg the following week, he immediately agreed to make the Murtha tape public, and I hoped he was doing it for the right reasons. After Murtha's defeat, and with the encouragement of virtually everyone, I decided to attempt a book about the entire scandal, and Weinberg had told me to keep him updated.
Back in the 1970's Weinberg was both an FBI informant and con man, and by 1977, the government had given up on him. That fall he was convicted of ten counts of fraud, but before he went to prison, he was given one last chance, and with another FBI agent concocted a sting involving fictitious Arab sheiks which would eventually become Abscam.
Over time, I would come to find the real story behind Abscam, which included the public suicide of Weinberg's wife because of her husband's behavior, and false charges to be filed against a gentleman named Kenneth MacDonald in order to cover-up for actions that the Justice Department--including a young staff attorney named Eric Holder--had determined that Weinberg had committed. A bipartisan Senate committee would also come to those same devastating conclusions.
When I first began to research the scandal in 2006, I quickly realized that it would be no easy task. Twenty people had been convicted, including a U.S. Senator and six congressmen, and there were ten different trials. In 2008, Bob Greene died, and after the funeral, Weinberg made two strange comments. First, he told me that Greene's son considered Abscam his story, because his father had written a book about Weinberg in 1981 called "The Sting Man."
Second, he asked me what research I had on Kenneth MacDonald, and if I would send it to him, which I did, but not asking why. At the time, I didn't have much material, because I wasn't even sure that I would touch on it. New Jersey Casino Commissioner MacDonald was the last Abscam figure to be indicted and died of cancer before his trial. At the time of Abscam, he wasn't technically a politician.
I soon began to look at the MacDonald case, and realized I would have to deal with it, because it was a crucial part of the investigation, and among the first bribes shown on tape. The case quickly became an enigma--MacDonald had passed an FBI background check of his finances, and some of the bribe money had been quickly recovered--none of it including his fingerprints. He had also passed a polygraph, but the government refused to conduct one.
Whenever I brought up the MacDonald case with Weinberg, he would get angry and tell me I was wasting my time. At one point I asked him if he thought MacDonald was guilty, and he paused and said, "I'm not sure."
There were also several articles that mentioned that Eric Holder, who in 2009 would become U. S. Attorney General, had been involved with the Abscam investigation, but none at the time mentioned the MacDonald case. I asked Weinberg if he remembered Holder's role in Abscam, and he told me he was unaware of any.
By September of 2009, I had obtained much of the research material, but was still missing crucial background information, including the case of Florida Rep. Richard Kelly (the only Abscam Republican politician), and the case of the two congressmen Murtha was involved with, Frank Thompson (D-NJ) and John Murphy (D-NY).
At this point, Weinberg contacted me and said someone was doing a documentary on Abscam, and he wanted me to send him some of the background material I had obtained which he would pass along to the filmmaker. After inquiring, he told me it was Eric Singer, who had written several film scripts that had been sold, but none had been produced until a 2009 movie called The International, which ended up being a critical and financial failure.
Knowing that I was more interested in an historical telling of Abscam than anything else, I somewhat reluctantly agreed to send it. While hearing nothing more about the film, I continued to search for the other background material. In the summer of 2010, I learned of Senate Abscam hearings in 1982, which were now online, and there was a final report, which was not.
In September, I was able to obtain the final report, and then quickly determined that the Senate must have had the tape transcripts I was still looking for. After a search in October, and then a follow-up inquiry again in November, I was able to locate them at a National Archives location.
But it was what was in the final report itself that was truly stunning. Much of the hearings and a large part of the final report dealt with Kenneth MacDonald, and what I learned was something that I did not want to believe and hoped was not true.
It also caused me to inquire about MacDonald tape transcripts within the Archives, but I was told that everything concerning that case was in the "closed" file. It will remain there until 2013, but even then will require permission from the FBI, Justice Department and Senate to gain access.
The report's devastating conclusion was that in 1979 Weinberg had used MacDonald as a ruse to split $100,000 in bribe money intended for MacDonald with another man, Angelo Errichetti, then the mayor of Camden, New Jersey.
The report also concluded that Weinberg had received a number of expensive gifts that he had convinced Errichetti and other Abscam "middlemen" to give him, and that he would then pass the gifts along so the middlemen could curry favor with the non-existent sheiks.
However the report concluded, Weinberg kept most of the gifts, and had committed perjury when asked about it in several venues, including the grand jury, before the Senate committee itself, at due process hearings and even at some of the Abscam trials--where Weinberg had been the main government witness.
The Case of Kenneth MacDonald
My initial focus after receiving the report was the MacDonald case and how it evolved. In 1978, the FBI had set up front offices near Weinberg's Long Island home called "Abdul Enterprises," and the initial focus was fraudulent securities and stolen art. John Good was the agent in charge of the Hauppauge, New York office, and he contacted Thomas Puccio, an assistant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn to prosecute any potential cases.
By December, the first politician became involved in the person of Errichetti, who was simultaneously a New Jersey state senator and the mayor of Camden. He was truly one of the corrupt figures of Abscam; I would come to find that many of the others were manipulated or entrapped. By January 1979, Errichetti was boasting of his influence with the state Casino Control Commission. At the time, the five-member commission was approving licenses for the burgeoning casino industry in Atlantic City.
Errichetti told the members of Abdul Enterprises that the Sheiks could have a casino built for $400,000 in bribe money that he would parcel out to the commissioners. On January 20, 1979, Errichetti was a given a down payment of $25,000 by Abdul board chairman Jack McCloud (FBI agent Jack McCarthy), the first Abscam bribe money to be passed.
Unknown by the FBI at the time, Errichetti had met with Weinberg at a nearby hotel the evening before, and Errichetti would later state that Weinberg had coached him on what to say. At the time, Errichetti had been claiming that he controlled most of the five commission members, and had singled out Kenneth MacDonald, the Vice Chairman.
MacDonald was the former Republican mayor of Haddonfield, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia which is also located near Camden. MacDonald had a reputation of being above reproach, and had been nominated by Democratic governor Brendan Byrne.
On March 5, 1979, and after much prompting by "Abdul" employees Weinberg and Tony Devito (FBI agent Anthony Amoroso), Errichetti arranged a dinner meeting in Cherry Hill, New Jersey between MacDonald and Abdul staff, including board chairman McCloud, as well as Devito and Weinberg.
Also at the meeting with Errichetti was his nephew/chauffeur Joseph DiLorenzo. The only problem was that MacDonald said nothing wrong at the meeting, and he discussed how Abdul could contact the commission in order to legally obtain a casino license.
Throughout March, Errichetti was pushed, especially by Weinberg, to bring MacDonald to Long Island in order to give them $100,000 to guarantee a casino license. But Errichetti continued to make exculpatory comments about MacDonald, saying that he would never take any money.
By March 26, the Abscam team thought they had a commitment for Errichetti to bring MacDonald to Long Island and notified FBI headquarters in Washington. Puccio personally discussed the bribe offer with FBI Director William Webster. Philip Heymann, the director of the criminal division at the Justice Department also discussed it with Webster.
The next day, after members of the FBI hierarchy had signed onto a memo approving the bribe offer, including Associate Director Francis Mullen, Webster would do so as well. He added a handwritten note: "Deliver money only to Commissioner MacDonald." Basically, this same procedure would occur in advance of other bribes that were offered during Abscam.
On March 30, Errichetti and DiLorenzo drove to a Long Island Holiday Inn to meet with Weinberg. The FBI knew about this meeting but strangely chose not to wire Weinberg, and both Puccio and Good never gave a rational explanation. Errichetti would later say that this is when Weinberg and he went through several scenarios to entice MacDonald to come to Long Island the next day.
On Saturday, March 31, Errichetti and MacDonald went to a VA hospital groundbreaking in Camden, and Errichetti would later say that he convinced MacDonald to accompany him to Abdul's offices where Errichetti would receive a $50,000 payment for real estate work he had done for the sheik.
Errichetti, DiLorenzo and MacDonald then drove to the Abdul office in Holbrook, Long Island, arriving in mid-afternoon to meet with board chairman John McCloud (agent McCarthy). When Errichetti and McCarthy began discussing the money, MacDonald moved toward a nearby window, peering outside.
When McCarthy opened the briefcase filled with money, Errichetti reached for it, and McCarthy nearly shut it on Errichetti's hand. Once he was sure MacDonald had seen the cash, he let Errichetti retrieve it. As they left the office, MacDonald was mumbling and obviously flustered, and Errichetti gave the briefcase to his nephew, where it then ended up in the trunk.
Technically, Webster's directive was not followed, but Puccio would later insist that it was (he would also say that MacDonald was guilty just by being there). McCarthy later said he never saw the directive, and even more importantly, he would tell the grand jury there was no proof that MacDonald had ever received the money.
After MacDonald, Errichetti and DiLorenzo left the Abdul office, they went to a nearby Holiday Inn for lunch to a meeting that Errichetti had prearranged with Weinberg. Abdul "advisers" Weinberg and Tony Devito (FBI agent Anthony Amoroso--who would soon replace McCarthy/McCloud), would be there--and both of them were wired.
Because of background noise, most of the conversation was difficult to retrieve. But it was two exchanges near the end that did come out clearly. As they were walking outside, Errichetti was complaining to Weinberg about McCarthy/McCloud.
Errichetti: That fuckin' schmuck. I'll kill him...that guy was always fuckin' useless. This guy (MacDonald) was so fuckin' happy coming up here in the car. Will I see you tomorrow or what?
Weinberg: I'll give you a call. Don't worry about it. I'll explain to Tony (Devito).
Errichetti: There's nothing to tell.
Weinberg: Hey, I'll come see you tomorrow. Don't worry about it.
Errichetti: I won't say nothing to Tony.
Moments later, as Errichetti, DiLorenzo and MacDonald prepared to drive away, there was the following exchange:
Errichetti (to Weinberg): I'll call you tonight.
Weinberg: Don't worry about it.
Errichetti: I'll see you tomorrow.
It was those exchanges that would later take on a whole new meaning to investigators.
Nearly a year later, on January 18th, 1980, as the FBI was preparing to go public with the investigation, what would end up being nine major cases were parceled out by Philip Heymann, the chief of the criminal division at Justice. Heymann assigned cases to Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Two of the cases, including MacDonald's, were assigned to Newark.
On February 2nd, the Abscam investigation went public, generating headlines around the world. Senator Harrison Williams (D-NJ) and seven congressmen (including Murtha) as well as MacDonald and Errichetti were among those mentioned as targets.
Two days later, MacDonald announced his resignation from the Casino Commission, saying that he did not want to have any taint connected with the organization, but that he had not done anything immoral or illegal.
In May, Errichetti was indicted in two Abscam related cases (he would eventually be indicted four times). Nothing was forthcoming yet from Newark, but serious allegations soon arose that would change the complexion of the MacDonald case and would eventually cause an earthquake to spread through both the FBI and Justice Department.
After the first bribe money was passed to Errichetti a year earlier, Robert Del Tufo, the U.S. Attorney in Newark, had been informed of the investigation by Puccio. Philip Heymann at Justice had ordered the Newark office to monitor and assist with the investigation, and Del Tufo assigned two assistant attorneys from his office, Edward Plaza and Robert Weir, to handle the Abscam cases.
Severe problems and disagreements eventually arose between Newark and Brooklyn. Plaza and Weir were restricted access to evidence and witnesses, particularly Weinberg. The two men also noticed the lack documentation and record keeping, which would be crucial for any potential trial.
Another case they were assigned to assist was that of Senator Williams. For months, an attempt was made to manipulate Williams to agree to use his influence to obtain government contracts for a bankrupt titanium mine, and the start-up money would come from the sheiks. Plaza and Weir discovered a tape where Weinberg had coached Williams just prior to a crucial recording. Plaza warned Weinberg to stop the practice but Weinberg said "if I don't put words in people's mouths, we won't have no cases."
Even though Weinberg had been warned not to coach targets, he soon continued the practice, coaching Errichetti on what to tell two Philadelphia Congressman, Michael Myers and Ray Lederer (this time to promise immigration assistance for the sheiks) which Weinberg would deny.
By June of 1980, a number of Abscam indictments had been issued, including Errichetti in both the Myers and Lederer cases. By the end of the year, six other indictments were returned.
The DiLorenzo allegations
But on June 10th, as Plaza and Weir were investigating a possible indictment of MacDonald and Errichetti, a bombshell was delivered by Joseph DiLorenzo, Errichetti's nephew. The two prosecutors met with him in the Trenton FBI office, along with Newark agent-in-charge Martin Houlihan.
And the story DiLorenzo told was an amazing one. He said that he drove his uncle to a Long Island Holiday Inn where he met with Weinberg the evening before Errichetti was given the $25,000 bribe by McCloud/McCarthy on January 20, 1979. He talked about delivering to Weinberg (at Errichetti's request), a number of expensive gifts throughout the first six months of 1979. The gifts included a betamax recorder, microwave oven, three television sets and a stereo (including the speakers).
But even more surprising was what DiLorenzo said had transpired during the weekend that the MacDonald money had been passed. He said that Errichetti told him on March 30 that they would be going to Long Island the next day, but it would be contingent upon MacDonald agreeing to come with them.
After picking MacDonald up, they went to the VA Hospital ceremony, and afterward proceeded to the Abdul office. DiLorenzo waited in the outer office, and when MacDonald came out, he looked angry and upset. Errichetti soon followed, and when they proceeded to the Holiday Inn for lunch, Errichetti had tried to calm MacDonald down.
During the meal, DiLorenzo remembered that either Weinberg, Errichetti or Amoroso said that the money was going back. He also remembered Errichetti saying something similar to MacDonald during the drive back to New Jersey as he still tried to calm him down.
After dropping MacDonald off, Errichetti and DiLorenzo returned to Long Island the next afternoon, and Errichetti was carrying a briefcase. They drove to a rest stop on the Long Island Expressway near the Holiday Inn, and a short time later Weinberg arrived.
Errichetti got out of their vehicle and went over to Weinberg's Lincoln with the briefcase. A short time later, he returned without the case, but showed his nephew a picture of a stereo system valued at $3300 that was available at Sam Goody's. Errichetti told him to buy something cheaper and deliver it to Weinberg.
Senate investigators later determined that the picture that DiLorenzo described was from an article in the April 1st New York Times Sunday Magazine describing a Pioneer stereo system valued at $3434. Investigators also determined that DiLorenzo purchased a less expensive stereo, speakers and a tape deck for $1300 at a New Jersey retailer on April 4, and he had soon delivered them to Weinberg, again at a rest stop on the Long Island Expressway.
When the stereo and other gifts were eventually discovered in 1982, it would lead to tragic consequences and cause national headlines.
On June 12th, two days after Plaza and Weir listened to DiLorenzo's statement, Weir traveled to Washington to report the stunning allegations. He met with Gerald McDowell, the chief of the Public Integrity office; Irvin Nathan, who was the deputy of the criminal division at Justice (and whose chief was Philip Heymann) and prosecutor Thomas Puccio.
Heymann, Nathan and McDowell would comprise the men in charge of Abscam at the Justice Department. Nathan would recommend who to indict to Heymann, and Heymann would discuss it with FBI Director Webster and then report the decision to the two top officials at Justice, Deputy Attorney General Charles Renfrew and Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, before any indictment was returned. McDowell's Public Integrity office would soon be assigned to handle the MacDonald case.
When Weir relayed the DiLorenzo allegations, Puccio said that DiLorenzo was lying. Others joined with Puccio in saying that there was a tape of a phone call that Weinberg made to Errichetti in Camden at 2:30 pm on April 1st, therefore providing him with the perfect alibi.
As for the gifts, Puccio said that any gifts should be removed from Weinberg's home and he should be coached on what to say. Weir immediately said that there would be no coaching, and McDowell and Nathan agreed (Plaza would later mention the gifts to Puccio. "You have to accept that sort of thing from him," he replied.)
FBI Director Webster, as well as agent John Good on Long Island, who was effectively in charge of both Weinberg and Abscam, were quickly notified of the DiLorenzo allegations. Days later at a prosecutor's meeting in Washington on June 18th, Good exploded in a rage at a prosecutor in an Abscam case from another jurisdiction when he had asked for access to Weinberg. Good then directed his fury at Plaza and Weir, calling them "enemies."
The next day, Plaza and Weir asked their boss, U.S. Attorney Robert Del Tufo, to be taken off Abscam, writing that "it is our sworn duty to seek out the truth," and that they would not "participate in such an endeavor." Del Tufo still wanted Plaza and Weir to stay on, but on the 24th, at a meeting in Washington that included Heymann and McDowell, Irvin Nathan told Del Tufo that the Abscam team did not wish to deal with New Jersey any longer, and added that an indictment should quickly be handed down in the MacDonald case.
Nathan added that Puccio had interviewed Weinberg about the gifts, and that Weinberg had denied receiving them. After the meeting, Del Tufo privately spoke with Heymann, and agreed to replace Plaza and Weir with two attorneys from Washington, and that they be debriefed on the MacDonald case. On June 30, Del Tufo made it official, sending a letter to Heymann agreeing to the change.
By late August, the two young attorneys from Washington arrived in Newark. They were from the Public Integrity section and their names were Reid Weingarten and Eric Holder.
Eric Holder and the MacDonald case
The Public Integrity section was technically a part of the Justice Department Criminal Division, and was created in 1976 as a response to the Watergate scandal of the Nixon years. Holder and Weingarten were among the first to join the unit, and for Holder it was reportedly his first job after graduating from Columbia Law School. The two men have become lifelong friends ever since.
Del Tufo had planned on leaving the Newark office that September to go into private practice because of the increased educational costs of his children. William Robertson, his chief assistant attorney, was slated to replace him. During the summer, Robertson familiarized himself with Abscam, and by late August would become supervisor for both Weingarten and Holder.
After the two were debriefed by Plaza and Weir, Robertson met in Washington with Heymann and Public Integrity Chief McDowell and made clear that a factual record be made before any indictment of MacDonald and that Holder and Weingarten would present any case to the grand jury.
Between September and December of 1980, the two began interviewing witnesses before the grand jury, and also began documenting the case. On November 28, in a status report sent to McDowell and Robertson, they noted some problems, including the lack of supervision of Weinberg and the failure to keep adequate records.
But they also concluded that the allegations by DiLorenzo were false because of the phone call by Weinberg to Errichetti in Camden at 2:30 pm on April 1, 1979. It was impossible for Errichetti to be at two places at the same time.
On December 3rd, Robertson met with Weingarten and Holder, and they informed him that Heymann, Nathan and McDowell wanted charges to be filed against MacDonald by December 18th. They also informed him that there was opposition to having Weinberg appear before the grand jury, something that Robertson insisted on.
After the meeting, Weingarten privately approached Robertson, and said that "Washington" wanted to gauge his reaction to having the MacDonald case transferred to Brooklyn, which was in Puccio's domain. Robertson mentioned that given all their work in Newark, and that there had been no determination yet of the case, it should remain in New Jersey. Weingarten agreed that he also preferred to stay in Newark, and Robertson later informed him that moving the case would be considered "forum shopping."
Since Weinberg would not be coming to Newark, Robertson ordered Holder and Weingarten to access all transcripts involving Weinberg, including due process hearings and grand jury and trial testimony in order to make a record they could present to the grand jury.
When the transcripts arrived in early December, he assigned Plaza and Weir to report to him on any problems that they noted. They prepared a report dated December 17, which would eventually set off a chain reaction and cause open warfare between New Jersey and Washington.
Also in mid-December, Holder and Weingarten would discover something astonishing that would rock the MacDonald case to its core. They had followed up on some of Plaza and Weir's work in an attempt to verify or shoot down the DiLorenzo allegations.
They were able to obtain background information, including phone records, that the two previous men were denied. It all began to come unraveled with the April 1, 1979 phone call that Weinberg had made to Errichetti.
It lasted eight minutes, and began with Weinberg using this preamble: "April 1, 2:30 pm, Sunday. I am returning the Mayor's call." Once Errichetti was on the line, he told Weinberg that MacDonald was "all shook up."
Then they discussed the prearranged fact that some of the money would be returned. Before the bribe money had passed, the Abscam team had worked out a ruse to have Errichetti return $25,000 because "Devito" needed the money to repair fire damage to the sheik's yacht, which had earlier been used as part of the Abscam sting.
Errichetti said that when MacDonald had started counting the money and told him about Tony's plight, that MacDonald "whipped it right out and said give it to Tony." But after Errichetti returned the money to another member of the Abscam team on April 3rd, none of the money had MacDonald's fingerprints on it (Errichetti would later testify that he and Weinberg evenly split the remaining $75,000.)
The phone call continued with Errichetti saying that MacDonald had "scared the hell out of everybody," but now he was pleased. "I got the 25, he's got the 75."
The only problem was that the call was not made at 2:30 on April 1, but at 4:54 pm.
When Weingarten and Holder looked at the phone logs, they were stunned. Then they began to systematically check the hundreds of other phone calls and transcripts that Weinberg had made. And none of the others started with a preamble.
Senate investigators would later discover that Weinberg had written the false time on the outside of the tape itself, and had quickly turned it over to the FBI Hauppauge office staff. This was also the only time he had ever done that.
They also determined that the call was prearranged by Errichetti and Weinberg to convince "Abdul Enterprises" that MacDonald had received part of the money. Errichetti would later say that Weinberg had told him another Abdul employee (an FBI agent who was the sheik's "mistress") would be listening in to confirm it.
They also noted the artificial sound of Errichetti's natural tone, which would normally be loaded with obscenities.
When Holder and Weingarten questioned Weinberg about the April 1st tape discrepancy, he had no rational explanation. They also discovered that Weinberg had made a credit card call from the Long Island Holiday Inn on January 19th, 1979, the day before the first bribe money had been passed to Errichetti.
Weinberg had denied being there, but suddenly remembered that he had, but still denied coaching Errichetti. These new developments troubled Weingarten so much that he immediately informed Robertson. Holder and Weingarten soon told Robertson that Weinberg could not be used as a reliable witness at any trial, and later repeated this to Plaza and Weir.
Around this same time, Plaza and Weir finished their report about discrepancies in the various Abscam-related testimony. There were contradictions about whether anyone from Puccio's team had admonished Weinberg about coaching and exactly how much he was being paid as well the contradictions about the gifts. Robertson then forwarded the Plaza/Weir memo to Heymann on December 17th. Nothing was heard until January 7, when all hell broke loose.
The day before, Nathan had prepared a memo addressed to Heymann savaging Plaza and Weir, and it basically accused them of being lazy. The Nathan memo immediately leaked to the press, and on the afternoon of the 7th, McDowell called Robertson to tell him that William Hendricks, the deputy at Public Integrity, would be debriefing Plaza and Weir.
Two hours later, Robertson received a call from Puccio that George Pratt--the trial judge in the ongoing trial of Congressman Lederer--had ordered Plaza and Weir to appear in court the next morning. When the two arrived the next day they were debriefed separately by Hendricks, but in reality it was a lengthy interrogation. Their Lederer testimony focused on their discovery of the Weinberg/Williams coaching tape, and how Plaza had admonished Weinberg.
On the 9th, Robertson sent a memo to top Justice officials Benjamin Civiletti and Charles Renfrew detailing inaccuracies in the Nathan memo. Renfrew ordered Robertson to appear in his office on the 12th, and when he arrived Heymann was laying in wait, and repeatedly admonished Robertson (Heymann would later tell Congress that Abscam was "almost unparalleled in it's care and it's openness to all views)."
Robertson noted that the meeting was improper, and that everyone involved should withdrawal from the MacDonald case as well as Abscam, and he asked to meet with Attorney General Civiletti.
That meeting took place on the 14th, and Robertson spoke of problems with the Nathan memo and with Abscam itself. Civiletti quickly issued a directive--the most important part being that by the January 23rd, the first full workday of the Reagan administration, Renfrew would make a decision on whether to indict MacDonald.
On January 15, Plaza was appearing at a due process hearing in Judge Pratt's Brooklyn court that had been requested by several Abscam defense attorneys. Pratt would handle several of the major Abscam trials, and would later be judge in the MacDonald case.
Plaza brought up the DiLorenzo allegations, and mentioned that Weingarten had told him about the false preamble on the crucial April 1st alibi tape. Pratt then asked Plaza if he knew of other prosecutors that had problems with Abscam, and Plaza mentioned three more, including Holder.
Pratt: H-o-l-d-e-r?
Plaza: I believe that's the way his name is spelled.
Pratt: Where is he from?
Plaza: He is from the Public Integrity Section down in Washington, D.C., as is Mr. Weingarten.
Pratt: And when did Mr. Holder express these concerns to you?
Plaza: During the last couple of months, sir.
Later, the subject came up again, and Plaza noted that Weingarten had problems with Weinberg's credibility.
Pratt: How about Holder?
Plaza: I don't recall him specifying, Judge. It was just—
Pratt: Was it a more generalized concern?
Plaza: Yes.
Pratt: And this was also focused on Weinberg?
Plaza: Yes.
Pratt: Or other aspects of the investigation?
Plaza: Especially Weinberg, your honor.
Also during the hearing, Edward Korman, the U.S. Attorney in Brooklyn--who was Puccio's superior--continued to attack Plaza and run flack for Puccio, who had called Plaza a "saboteur" during his testimony.
By January 22nd, Attorney General Civiletti had left Justice, and Robertson met with then acting Attorney General Renfrew. Irvin Nathan was with him, and the meeting turned into an inquisition. Both Renfrew and Nathan made it clear that they weren't interested in any misconduct or other information that could undermine Abscam, and Renfrew made it clear to Robertson that he, Plaza and Weir were guilty of misconduct and that he would recommend that they be brought up on charges.
It would eventually be reported that the Office of Professional Responsibility had not only cleared all three men, but investigated the claims of misconduct during Abscam that the three had made. The office also strongly criticized the behavior of both Renfrew and Nathan, and OPR chief Michael Shaheen added that "our finding was that Plaza and Weir were not guilty of any improper conduct."
After the Renfrew meeting, Newark's involvement was effectively over, but the MacDonald case was about to get a whole lot messier.
The McDowell/Keeney memo
By January 23rd, as the Reagan team was settling in, Philip Heymann had already left his position as head of the criminal division. John Keeney was now the acting chief. Keeney had been at Justice since 1951, and had filled in previously for a number of various vacancies. That day he received a memo from Gerald McDowell, who was Holder and Weingarten's chief at Public Integrity.
It would be a memo that the Justice Department moved heaven and earth to keep away from both the Errichetti and MacDonald attorneys as well as the House and Senate. It was discovered in late 1982 after MacDonald's death by Ralph Soda of Gannett and stories soon followed in the Associated Press, Village Voice and The American Lawyer.
Soda later reported that the memo was buried by Judge Pratt during the discovery phase of the MacDonald trial.
And the contents of the memo were explosive. According to Soda, McDowell wrote Keeney that even though there were problems with the evidence, MacDonald should be indicted "to conceal the fact that a key member of the undercover team (Weinberg), together with a middleman (Errichetti), pocketed $75,000 in federal bribe money the defendant (MacDonald) was charged with receiving."
"In truth," continued the memo, "we can show no money from the payoffs going to MacDonald." In dealing with the alibi tape, McDowell wrote "that by ending the conspiracy on March 31, we lose the use of the April 1 tape," and that the tape was "evidence that must at this time be viewed as suspect."
McDowell also cautioned that in prosecuting MacDonald, the government should divorce itself as much as possible from Weinberg, with "as little reliance" from him as possible.
The memo contained even more bombshells. The indictment was necessary to "buttress the government's cases against other defendants" in the Abscam probe. The MacDonald case was the "the heart and soul" of the Atlantic City investigation, and that "a decision not to prosecute would cast doubt on everything that has been accomplished thus far."
McDowell even raised points that MacDonald may use in his defense, one of them being that Errichetti was a legendary braggart who had puffed up his relationship with MacDonald to the Abdul people.
The disclosure caused Justin Walder (who had been MacDonald's attorney) to say that "there has never been any evidence that MacDonald agreed to accept the bribe. In fact there is evidence to the contrary," and that the memo "should have been made available to us." But in 1983, Puccio told Steven Brill of The American Lawyer that the memo was "insignificant bullshit."
By mid-February of 1981, after McDowell wrote the still secret memo, the AP reported that the Justice Department had decided to move the MacDonald case from Newark to Brooklyn, under Judge Pratt. And on March 5, 1981 an extraordinary thing happened in Judge Curtis Meanor's chambers in Newark.
William Robertson, who was still the U.S. Attorney but had been relieved of the MacDonald case, showed up with Holder and Weingarten. Robertson said the two men were under instructions from John Keeney to advise the grand jury to agree to transfer the MacDonald case to Brooklyn. After there had been the initial press reports, a member of the grand jury sent a letter to Meanor asking why.
An angry Judge Meanor asked the three men "by what authority is such a transfer, quote unquote, made? Show me some statutes, some case that says the Department of Justice can take a case from a grand jury in Newark, take it to Brooklyn or New York or Boston, wherever it desires, over the protest of the grand jury."
Robertson noted the grand jury's objection, but repeated that Holder and Weingarten had been instructed by Keeney to address the jury. Weingarten then told Meanor that he and Holder had carried out their grand jury assignment over the last five months, and that we "traveled down several roads of collateral potential criminal violations and essentially came up dry."
Weingarten added that he didn't want to suggest that the government could get a better deal in Brooklyn, and noted the problems that existed between Newark and the Abscam team. He noted that it would more comfortable for everyone if the case was transferred to Brooklyn. After making the argument to the grand jury, they reluctantly agreed, and the case was transferred to Pratt and Puccio.
Just two days prior to the Newark hearing, Justin Walder met with Holder, Weingarten, and McDowell and requested that the government conduct a polygraph of his client. MacDonald had already taken and passed a private polygraph test, and Weingarten and Holder were in favor of the idea. They said that they would get back to him.
A few days later, Walder was told that before they could render a decision that "we need to interrogate Mr. MacDonald to see if there are specific areas that might permit a meaningful polygraph examination." After discussing it with MacDonald, they both agreed to go to Washington.
This would lead to another extraordinary event. On March 23, 1981, they arrived in an office full of nine or ten individuals, including Holder, Weingarten, McDowell and others from the FBI and Justice Department. MacDonald was questioned for most of the day, and Walder only watched, saying nothing. McDowell left at lunch and never returned. MacDonald answered all their questions, and he and Walder were told that they would be recontacted. Walder kept reaching out, and finally spoke with Weingarten in May, just one month before the indictment.
Weingarten said that he was in favor of a polygraph, "but others have something to say. There is nothing I can do about it." Walder got the impression that Holder was in favor of it as well. Walder later learned that McDowell had discussed the polygraph with John Keeney, and that it was McDowell who rejected the idea, overruling Weingarten and Holder.
Also in May, Edward Plaza ran into Holder at a due process hearing for Congressman John Jenrette (D-SC) who had been convicted of Abscam charges in Washington in 1980. Public Integrity had assisted in that case, and Holder and Weingarten had also been involved.
At the hearing--which included a comment from Irvin Nathan that it didn't matter whether Weinberg had been accepting gifts--Holder told Plaza that, "Ed, you won't believe how far we have come to embrace all the views that you had about Abscam," and that he and Weingarten had written another memo about the MacDonald case, which they had completed two months before.
"And the boys up front are not happy with us," said Holder. He added that he and Weingarten would soon be off the case.
But, apparently, they remained on the case. The eight-page indictment of MacDonald and Errichetti was issued on June 18, 1981. Weingarten would later tell Senate investigators that he had written the prosecution memo that went with the indictment but did not wish to prosecute the case, which was eventually assigned to two other Public Integrity lawyers.
The indictment itself charged that MacDonald and Errichetti had conspired to obtain the bribe money, and both had shared it as well. They were charges that the government, as well as both Holder and Weingarten, had determined were false.
And in August of 1981, two months after the indictment, Errichetti swore out a five-page affidavit detailing how he and Weinberg had set-up MacDonald. On the first page, Errichetti said that, "I am giving this affidavit based on discussions with Mr. Reid H. Weingarten of the Department of Justice, Public Integrity Section, and based upon the expressed desire to do justice and not charge an innocent person (MacDonald)."
The affidavit closely resembled the allegations of his nephew, Joseph DilLorenzo, a year before except for one thing: Errichetti had later told MacDonald that he had returned the money.
As for exactly when Weingarten and Holder were no longer involved with the MacDonald case, the only way to possibly find out would be to access the full government records of it, which are still under seal, and will likely remain so.
The fact remains that no one at Public Integrity, the Justice Department, or FBI spoke up even after the indictment. It would not only destroy Kenneth MacDonald's reputation, but in 1982, would lead to further tragedy.


1 comment:

  1. Please note: If you find this article through Firefox, sometimes the last few pages of part one do not show. Thank you--Ron Kolb