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A former Pa. congressman caught in 1970s Abscam sting pleads guilty to election fraud charges

Former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers — who had been working as a campaign consultant since his release from prison — admitted to persuading elections officials to pad votes for favored candidates.

Former U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers pictured at a 1976 campaign stop in Philadelphia.
Former U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers pictured at a 1976 campaign stop in Philadelphia.Read moreMICHAEL MERCANTI / Staff file photo

A former Pennsylvania congressman convicted in the 1970s Abscam investigation pleaded guilty Monday to new charges that he persuaded poll workers to stuff ballot boxes in local elections.

Former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers — who had been working as a campaign consultant since his release from federal prison in the 1980s — admitted to a federal judge he paid one South Philadelphia elections official to fraudulently add votes for candidates who had hired him for their races from 2014 to 2016. He convinced another, he said, to do it for free.

His decision to plead guilty came just hours before he was set to stand trial on charges including bribery, obstruction of justice, falsification of voting records, and illegally voting in a federal election.

The 79-year-old former politician now faces up to 20 years in prison on the most serious of those counts and could spend the rest of his life behind bars.

“One thing you can say about Ozzie Myers: his values have long been out of whack,” said Jacqueline Maguire, head of the Philadelphia office of the FBI, which investigated the case. “He valued his clients’ money and his own whims more than the integrity of multiple elections and the will of Philadelphia voters.”

Myers and his attorneys did not immediately return calls for comment Monday afternoon. But since he was indicted in 2020, his case has become a national flash point among Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, who have asserted without proof that Democrats routinely cheat in elections in places like Philadelphia.

No evidence has surfaced of widespread voter fraud that has swayed any recent election. And despite the seriousness of Myers’ case, prosecutors have not alleged that the fraudulent votes he bought were enough to tip the balance of any race in the South Philadelphia ward where he was doling out bribes, let alone the entire city.

Prosecutors have not identified the candidates supported with Myers’ bribes but noted in recent court filings that most, if not all of them, had no idea what he was doing with the money they paid him for his consulting services.

Myers spent three years in federal lockup in the early 1980s for his involvement in Abscam, a sprawling FBI investigation that involved agents posing as representatives of a sheikh offering cash in exchange for political favors.

The probe netted bribery convictions against seven members of Congress, a New Jersey state senator, three Philadelphia City Council members, and the mayor of Camden.

It ended Myers’ electoral career and led to his expulsion from Congress, where he had served as the representative of the 1st Congressional District since 1976. His career as a lawmaker is best known for the most enduring line to emerge from the sting operation.

“Money talks in this business and bull— walks,” he told the agents on a 1979 FBI recording while accepting a $50,000 bribe.

Since his release from prison in 1985, Myers had refashioned himself as one of the go-to political consultants for judicial candidates looking to navigate the intricacies of ward politics in South Philadelphia.

He’s advised clients ranging from local judicial hopefuls to Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Kevin Dougherty, brother of John J. Dougherty, former head of Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

In fact, Myers’ work with Local 98 drew scrutiny from federal agents as part of the investigation that led to the labor leader’s conviction in a separate political corruption case last year. The union paid Myers more than $400,000 in recent years for his services, records show.

In recent court filings, prosecutors alleged that Kevin Dougherty was among the candidates who Myers pushed poll workers to support with fraudulent votes, though they have not said the justice or his brother was aware of that fact.

Operatives like Myers hold influence with ward leaders and committee people across the city and can often make the difference on whether candidates in down-ballot races, like judicial elections, show up on sample ballots of endorsed candidates distributed at polling locations.

Specifically, Myers admitted Monday to paying thousands of dollars to Domenick DeMuro, the former judge of elections for the 39th Ward, 36th Division — a pocket of deep South Philadelphia which lies east of Broad to 12th Street and runs from Oregon Avenue to the Schuylkill Expressway.

He separately persuaded Marie Beren, a former staffer for City Councilmember Mark Squilla who oversaw voting in the neighboring 39th Ward, 2nd Division, to also add votes to his favored candidates, though prosecutors did not accuse her of accepting his bribes.

The former congressman’s connections to the 39th Ward run deep. Myers’ brother, Matthew, is the Democratic leader of Ward 39B. His nephew Jonathan “J.R.” Rowan holds the same position in Ward 39A, and ran unsuccessfully for the state House in 2018.

Prosecutors have described the alleged “ballot stuffing” scheme as yet another mechanism by which Myers bolstered his control over his family’s political fiefdom.

It “enabled him to take credit for the electoral successes of his Philadelphia-based clients and preferred candidates, secure his standing in local party politics that enabled him to control and influence the 39th Ward, and influence the distribution of local patronage jobs,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson wrote in court filings.

DeMuro, who pleaded guilty to election fraud charges in 2020, has been cooperating with the FBI ever since agents confronted him in 2016 and recorded Myers during two election cycles as they discussed what the former congressman described as “ringing up votes.”

In excerpts of those conversations quoted in court filings, Myers allegedly instructed DeMuro on how to hide the bribes he was receiving — including providing fictitious names to be put on checks.

“I’m gonna get you a couple checks, there’s no question about that,” the former congressman told DeMuro in one conversation quoted in court papers. “If you want to give me a different name than Domenick DeMuro, that’s your business.”

Myers also allegedly explained that he wouldn’t be able to pay the bribes until the deadline had passed for his clients’ last campaign finance report prior to the primary election.

“You don’t want to be on any [candidate’s campaign finance] report May 7 when the election is May 16,” the indictment quotes him as saying.

In one case described by prosecutors, Myers cut a $1,000 bribe check made out to DeMuro’s wife during the 2017 Democratic primary campaign. Little did he know DeMuro was working for the feds at the time.

The money was later listed as payment for “get out the vote” efforts on the campaign finance reports of Viktoria Kristiansson, who was running for the spot she now holds as a Common Pleas Court judge.

Kristiansson paid Myers $5,000 for campaign consulting work that year — one of at least five judicial candidates who hired him to do so, according to campaign finance records.

Prosecutors have not named her or any of the other Myers clients who benefited from his bribery scheme in court filings or suggested that any of them have committed a crime.

Staff writer Oona Goodin-Smith contributed to this article.