In February 1980, press reports linked Harrison A. Williams, Jr. (D-NJ) to the FBI's ABSCAM sting operation and investigation of business crime and political corruption. Williams, serving in his fourth term and chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources, was indicted on October 30, 1980, on nine counts, including bribery, receipt of an unlawful gratuity, conflict of interest, and conspiracy to defraud the United States. At the trial in United States District Court in Brooklyn, New York, the FBI produced videotapes of Williams promising to use his influence to aid a supposed Arab sheik (impersonated by an FBI agent) in return for a multi-million dollar loan to a titanium-mining corporation in which the senator had a secret financial interest. On May 1, 1981, the jury found Williams guilty on all counts. (In other ABSCAM cases, six members of the House of Representatives were also found guilty; one, Michael "Ozzie" Myers, was expelled; two resigned; and the others were defeated for reelection.)
Statement of the Case
The Senate Select Committee on Ethics commenced a preliminary inquiry of Harrison Williams' ABSCAM involvement after the initial press reports appeared in early 1980. The committee deferred further action, however, so as not to jeopardize either the Department of Justice case or Williams' right to a fair trial, free of prejudicial publicity. Once the jury returned a guilty verdict, these reasons for deference were removed, although Williams, who steadfastly insisted that he was innocent, continued to press upon the trial judge his post-trial motions to set aside the jury verdict on grounds of procedural due process. On May 5, the committee adopted a resolution authorizing an investigation of the senator, the final, most active, stage in its multi-stage procedure. It also engaged Robert S. Bennett as special counsel. On July 14, 15, and 28, 1981, the Ethics Committee held hearings at which Williams was represented by counsel and was permitted to call and examine witnesses. "While I may have crossed over the line which divides appropriate service to constituents from excessive boasting and posturing," Williams said, "I never engaged in any illegal conduct; I never corrupted my office and I never intended to do anything that would bring dishonor to the Senate."
Despite Williams' claims, on August 24 the Ethics Committee unanimously found his conduct "ethically repugnant" and recommended his expulsion. In its report issued on September 3, the committee concluded, among other things, that he had offered to use his influence to win a government contract and that he intended to conceal his interest in the mining venture. The report declared that these and Williams' other actions tended "to bring the Senate into dishonor and disrepute, and only the most severe sanction is appropriate for such an abuse of the public trust."
In September Ethics Committee Chairman Malcolm Wallop (R-WY) announced to the Senate that debate on the resolution would begin in November. In the meantime, he had arranged for key portions of the video- and audiotapes that had been used as evidence in Williams' trial to be played in a Senate office building on several occasions, so that senators could view the evidence for themselves before voting. Stressing the gravity of the issue, Wallop repeatedly took the floor through the rest of the month and again in November to remind senators of their duty to take the time to review the tapes.
The committee report had originally recommended that the full Senate postpone action on the case until after the District Court judge ruled on the pending due process motions filed by Williams. On the other hand, the committee members believed it was bad for both the Senate and Williams himself to have Senate action delayed too long. For this reason, debate was first set for November, even though the judge had not yet ruled, then postponed until December 3. Meanwhile, on November 23, after Senate leaders rejected Williams' request to be represented by private legal counsel on the Senate floor, he filed suit against the Senate in federal court. Williams charged that the Ethics Committee acted unlawfully as investigator, judge, and jury and that the full Senate threatened to violate his constitutional right to counsel. Although District Judge Gerhard Gesell refused to issue a temporary restraining order against the Senate expulsion debate, Senate leaders did decide to postpone considering the issue so that Daniel Inouye (D-HI), who had agreed to serve as Williams' chief advocate on the floor, would have time to prepare his case. The debate was therefore rescheduled for January 1982.
On December 21, 1981, Federal District Judge George C. Pratt denied Williams' due process motions to dismiss his indictment, for judgment of acquittal (setting aside the jury verdict), and for a new trial, and on February 17, 1982, Williams was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000.
Response of the Senate Select Committee
After several further delays, the Senate on March 3 finally began debating whether to expel Harrison Williams. Majority Leader Howard Baker (R-TN) explained that the body would follow procedures similar to those used in the past, with committees not allowed to meet for more than two hours after the Senate convened, no other business to be transacted, and a quorum of senators actually present in the chamber.
Malcolm Wallop (R-WY) and Howell Heflin (D-AL) spoke for the Ethics Committee and Daniel Inouye served as advocate for Williams. Heflin emphasized that the committee had operated in an entirely bipartisan manner and had reached a unanimous conclusion. Information presented by newspaper columnist Jack Anderson in recent weeks, alleging wrongdoing by the FBI in the case, also should not affect the Senate's action, he contended. Regardless of what the FBI had done, Williams had clearly offered to use his influence as a senator and had conspired to keep his share in the venture secret.
Harrison Williams also addressed the Senate, at great length, in his own behalf. Before he started, he offered to be placed under oath and to waive his immunity under the "Speech and Debate" clause of the Constitution (Article I, section 6), but Senate leaders objected that there was no precedent for such action, this was not an evidentiary proceeding, and such a precedent could place pressure on senators in future cases to take similar oaths. Eventually, it was agreed that Williams would simply assure the Senate that he would not use immunity as a defense if he were ever charged with perjury for statements he made in his defense on the Senate floor. Declaring his complete innocence, Williams called the recommendation for expulsion "preposterous." After describing at length how he became involved in the questionable venture, he focused on what he called the entrapment and misconduct by the government in the case.
Inouye argued that in the past expulsion from the Senate had been reserved for cases of treason, but committee member Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) retorted, "If nontreasonous behavior be the sole benchmark of fitness to serve in this body, then one must ask how fit is this body in which we serve?" Several senators, chief among them Alan Cranston (D-CA), suggested censure as a more appropriate sanction. While recognizing that Williams had acted in a "manner unbecoming a senator," Cranston explained that censure, not being irrevocable like expulsion, was more appropriate while Williams was still pursuing his appeals. Later, if all the appeals were denied, the Senate could still decide to expel him. Wallop responded, pointing out that Williams had continued his involvement in the questionable enterprise over a period of many months and that the performance of the FBI was not the question but rather Williams' conduct. Eagleton then noted that, just because Williams had not had the grace to withdraw from the Senate, "we should not perpetrate our own disgrace by asking him to stay." When it became apparent that the censure movement lacked support and that the Senate would most likely vote for expulsion, Harrison Williams resigned from the Senate on March 11, 1982.
Harrison Williams served twenty-one months of his three-year prison sentence and was released on January 31, 1986.
The Senate was careful to take no action against Williams until the legal process had run its course, in order not to prejudice the case. Once he had been convicted and sentenced, however, the body was prepared to move against him. Committee members made clear during the debate that, even if Williams had not been convicted, the Senate would have had every right to conduct its own review of his behavior to determine whether he had violated any Senate rules.
While Daniel Inouye was correct that the Senate had previously only expelled members for disloyalty, several senators involved in corruption cases either had resigned like Williams, or had died before the Senate could vote on expulsion.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 434-437.