FBI looking for opportunities to go undercover in Congress

Official calls public corruption program `a sleeping giant we've awoken'

November 06, 2006|By Greg Gordon | Greg Gordon,McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON -- The new chief of the FBI's Criminal Division, which is swamped with public corruption cases, says the bureau is ramping up its ability to catch crooked politicians and might run an undercover sting on Congress.

Assistant FBI Director James Burrus called the bureau's public corruption program "a sleeping giant that we've awoken" and predicted the nation will see continued emphasis in that area "for many, many, many years to come."

So much evidence of wrongdoing is surfacing in the nation's capital that Burrus recently committed to adding a fourth 15- to 20-member public corruption squad to the FBI's Washington field office.

In the past year, former Republican Reps. Randy "Duke" Cunningham of California and Bob Ney of Ohio have pleaded guilty to corruption charges. FBI agents are investigating about a dozen other Congress members, including as many as three senators. The Justice Department also is expected to begin seeking indictments after a sweeping FBI investigation of the Alaska Legislature.

If conditions warrant, Burrus said, he wouldn't balk at urging an undercover sting similar to the famed Abscam operation in the late 1970s in which a U.S. senator and six House members agreed on camera to take bribes from FBI agents posing as representatives of Arab sheiks.

"We look for those opportunities a lot," Burrus said. "I would do it on Capitol Hill. I would do it in any state legislature. ... If we could do an undercover operation, and it would get me better evidence, I'd do it in a second."

Philip Heymann, who oversaw the Abscam investigation as chief of the Justice Department's Criminal Division during the Carter administration, expressed surprise to learn of the FBI's willingness to attempt another congressional sting after the outcry from Capitol Hill over Abscam.

"It shows courage at the FBI," said Heymann, now a criminal law professor at Harvard University. He said he concluded, after watching a recent public television documentary and listening to experts, that "there is more corruption [on Capitol Hill] than I ever thought imaginable" and that a single FBI sting "might result in very large numbers of prosecutions."

Nationally over the past year, 600 agents worked 2,200 public corruption cases, resulting in 650 arrests, 1,000 indictments and 800 convictions, Burrus said.

FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III, who listed public corruption as his top criminal investigative priority when he shifted the FBI's focus to terrorism in 2002, said last month that the surge in convictions "sends the message that public corruption will not be tolerated." Despite the realignment, the number of agents working on public corruption has remained constant.

The FBI's broad investigation of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff has led to a handful of convictions, including Ney's guilty plea last month. Questions about his ties to Abramoff was one reason behind former Rep. Tom DeLay's resignation in June. The Texas Republican also faces state campaign finance charges. Other investigations seem to be sprouting everywhere.

But Reid Weingarten, a former Abscam prosecutor who is now a Washington criminal defense lawyer, said he would bet that the flurry of congressional cases has resulted from evidence "falling in their laps," rather than a programmed FBI hunt for corruption.

The FBI does appear to be stepping up its use of electronic surveillance and has conducted stings of state politicians. Agents secretly taped Rep. William J. Jefferson, a Louisiana Democrat, before finding $90,000 in his freezer during a raid in May. Cell phones were wiretapped for four months in an investigation of Rep. Curt Weldon, a Pennsylvania Republican, government sources say.

Ten Tennessee state officials, including five current and former legislators, have been prosecuted in a scheme in which hidden cameras whirred as FBI undercover agents offered payoffs in return for help for a dummy company. Burrus said some targeted Tennessee legislators were moving so quickly that "we were actually having to discuss how we were going to slow it down" so that bills aiding the phony firm didn't become law.

A separate undercover inquiry led to the indictment of three members of San Diego's City Council.

In Alaska, the FBI has more than doubled its manpower in a investigation of allegations that an oil industry services company bribed state legislators, people familiar with the inquiry said. On Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, the FBI conducted two dozen raids and searched the office of state Sen. Ben Stevens, son of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican.

Burrus declined to discuss any investigation but said the FBI will focus on more state capitals over the next year, "because we have seen a trend in cases that leads us to believe there's more out there."

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