The news that FBI agents found some $90,000 in cash paid to Rep. William Jefferson, D-La., wrapped in tinfoil and secreted in the refrigerator of his Washington-area home, suggests a disturbing lack of financial acumen. In the 1970s, sources told Alan Block, author of Masters of Paradise: Organized Crime and the Internal Revenue Service in the Bahamas, that Castle Bank & Trust numbered Watergate conspirators and big Nixon campaign contributors among those who used its untraceable accounts. One investigator told Block about a document that suggested that perhaps then-President Nixon himself may have had money secreted away in the tax haven.
Jefferson’s cold cash is more reminiscent of Rep. Richard Kelly, a Republican from Florida who was stung in the Abscam investigation. Kelly was caught on camera taking an envelop containing $25,000 of cash from an FBI agent posing as a representative of an Arab Sheikh. Kelly stuffed it down his pants, and then asked if it produced a noticeable bulge.
It did to the jury; Kelly, now deceased, was found guilty in 1981 of charges related to the Abscam probe.
It has been nearly three decades since FBI agents posed as Arab businessmen to nab members of Congress taking bribes in a sting that came to be known as Abscam.
The operation resulted in the indictments and convictions of a senator and five congressmen on charges including bribery and conspiracy, and of another congressman on lesser charges. Although it was successful in the courtroom, the investigation raised questions about FBI tactics, and the government appeared to shelve the procedure, at least on Capitol Hill.
Predictably, members of Congress railed against the FBI over Abscam. They claimed that any ordinary American could be entrapped in a sting. But while sting operations remain a tool of law enforcement, they are, oddly enough, rarely used against public officials (as opposed to members of the public at large). I tend to think things should be the other way around–we should expect a much higher standard of conduct from holders of public office. In practice, we exact a much lower standard.