WASHINGTON - Even after death, John Murtha remains mired in controversy.
The FBI yesterday released hundreds of pages about the late congressman who came under criminal investigation three decades ago and who died in February amid an ongoing criminal probe into alleged kickbacks involving defense contractors.
Besides the FBI's Abscam sting operation that tarnished Murtha's reputation in 1980, "Mr. Murtha was also the subject of other ethical and potentially criminal complaints," the bureau's website noted in explaining why it is still withholding material about Murtha from public inspection.
Federal law allows the public to obtain FBI files on people after they die. There's an exception, however, when the dead person's name turns up in an open investigation.
"As this investigative file is still in 'pending status,' the bulk of the file's FBI documents are not releasable until the conclusion of the investigation," the FBI website entry on Murtha states.
The file contains news articles about Kuchera Defense Systems, for whom Murtha played congressional benefactor, directing millions in congressional earmarks to the firm as chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.
The newly released FBI documents detail Murtha's role in the Abscam scandal, the law-enforcement sting that damaged the congressman's reputation early in his political career.
The documents state that "during the course of the operations, Abscam has developed prosecutive federal cases against" 15 people, including Murtha.
The Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania was never charged, but the government named him as an unindicted coconspirator. He testified against two other members of the House.
FBI agents captured Murtha on videotape turning down a $50,000 bribe offer, while holding out the possibility he might take money in the future.
The participants in the FBI sting were asking the congressman for his cooperation in gaining permanent resident status for what turned out to be a fictitious Arab sheikh.
A month after Murtha was secretly videotaped by the FBI, agents questioned the congressman about the meeting where he'd been offered the $50,000, according to the newly released documents.
"Murtha did not feel that the money was directly offered to him," stated the FBI summary of Murtha's responses to the agents' questions.
The FBI summary stated that Murtha's position was the money "was shown" to him "and a payment was implied" since two cooperating undercover witnesses in the investigation said "Murtha's assistance was worth 'such and such'."
However, the FBI summary added, Murtha insisted that his interest in helping the Arab sheikh was "in obtaining jobs in his district."
When the scandal broke, one FBI document says, Murtha assured House colleague Jim Wright, D-Texas, the congressman hadn't been involved in the Abscam operation.
Murtha didn't take the $50,000 on the videotape, but he didn't report the offer to the FBI either - a lapse that the bureau examined in detail in a legal memo focusing on the conduct of Murtha and five other congressmen.
Neither federal laws nor regulations "require the offeree of a bribe to take any steps toward reporting the offer," the FBI legal counsel stated in 1982. The legal memo said the ethics rules for both the House of Representatives and the Senate only prohibit the receipt of unauthorized income and impose no duty to report improper offers."