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Former Abscam Congressman ‘Ozzie’ Myers is headed back to federal prison — this time for election fraud

The former politician was sentenced to 2 1/2 years behind bars after pleading guilty to bribing election workers to stuff ballot boxes in local elections.

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

The last time former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers stood before a federal judge to face sentencing in a bribery case, Ronald Reagan was president and Abscam — the 1970s scandal that sent Myers and a host of other elected officials to prison — dominated newspaper headlines.

The South Philadelphia politician emerged from the New York courtroom brimming with confidence that his conviction would be overturned on appeal.

But as the now 79-year-old found himself facing a similar predicament Tuesday — this time awaiting punishment for a separate bribery scheme involving ballot-stuffing in local elections — he didn’t emerge from the courthouse at all.

Saying he had little confidence Myers had learned anything in the four decades between his convictions, U.S. District Judge Paul S. Diamond sentenced the former congressman to 2½ years in prison and ordered him hauled off to prison immediately — a decision that hit the courtroom like a bomb.

Gasps erupted from the gallery filled with Myers’ family and friends. Some began sobbing, while others muttered quiet curses at the judge under their breath.

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

Myers’ son attempted to leap across the courtroom pews, shouting “I’m just trying to say goodbye,” as U.S. Marshals surrounded his father and prepared to escort him away.

Calm amid the chaos, Myers stood silently — his shoulders slumped, his face obscured by a face mask — as he hobbled from the room, handcuffed and with guards on each arm.

“I can’t believe it,” said one gobsmacked supporter as she watched him taken away. “It’s a death sentence.”

That dramatic scene capped off what, up to that point, had been a relatively routine hearing aside from the crimes alleged and the man who’d admitted to committing them.

Myers — who has worked as a Democratic campaign consultant since his release from federal prison in the 1980s — pleaded guilty earlier this year to election fraud charges, admitting he’d persuaded two South Philadelphia elections officials to add fake votes to candidates who’d hired him for their races from 2014 to 2016.

Prosecutors have not identified the candidates supported by Myers’ bribes and said few, if any, had any idea what he was doing with the money they’d paid him. They’ve noted that despite the seriousness of his crimes, the fake votes Myers bought were not enough to swing even his South Philadelphia ward — let alone the outcome of any election.

Still, his case had drawn national scrutiny from some Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, who have asserted with no evidence that Democrats in Philadelphia routinely cheat in elections.

“The societal cost of what Mr. Myers did here — not once, not twice, not three, four, five, six times — but over six election cycles just in the [indictment] … has undermined confidence in the city of Philadelphia, more broadly in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, but also across the nation,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Eric L. Gibson said.

And it wasn’t the first time in his nearly half-century career in politics, Gibson added, that Myers had betrayed the public’s trust.

In the early 1980s, Myers spent three years in federal lockup 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.

The scandal led to Myers’ expulsion from Congress — the first time a representative had been slapped with such a penalty since the Civil War — and reduced the legacy of his four years representing Pennsylvania’s 1st Congressional District to a single, enduring sentence caught on video in an FBI sting operation.

“Money talks in this business and bulls— walks,” he told agents in the 1979 recording as he accepted a $50,000 bribe.

Since his release 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.

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.

But as he pleaded guilty earlier this year, Myers admitted doing quite a bit more.

He told Diamond in June that he’d paid thousands of dollars in bribes to Domenick DeMuro, a former judge of elections, to add votes to his favored candidates in 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 of City Councilmember Mark Squilla, who oversaw voting in the neighboring 39th Ward, 2nd Division, to do the same.

Both DeMuro and Beren have pleaded guilty and are awaiting sentencing. And while the ballot-stuffing didn’t change the outcome of any election, prosecutors said, it enabled Myers to take credit for the electoral successes of his clients and secure his standing as an effective campaign consultant in the city.

“These weren’t elections in the 39th Ward,” Diamond, the judge, remarked Tuesday. “These were the Myers elections.”

Despite his crimes, Myers’ attorneys — Noah Gorson and Arnold R. Silverstein — urged the judge to consider sentencing their client to house arrest citing his advanced age, ailing health and a record of serving his community.

They cited the dozens of friends, family members, and neighbors who submitted character letters to the court vouching for Myers’ commitment to his neighborhood and those who lived in it.

“He’s made some mistakes,” Silverstein told the judge. “But the good he’s done far outweighs those mistakes.”

But some of those glowing testimonials prompted raised eyebrows from prosecutors. Gibson balked at some of the glowing testimonials of Myers’ character like those by Squilla — on official City Council letterhead — and former Councilmembers Frank DiCicco and Blondell Reynolds Brown.

“Former City Council members, current City Council members [are choosing] to ignore or articulate or wrestle with the incredible damage Mr. Myers has done to the electoral process in Philadelphia,” he said. “They have provided nothing for this court.”

Diamond was also unswayed. In addition to the prison term he imposed, the judge ordered Myers to pay a $100,000 fine and serve a term of probation upon his release.

He paused before announcing the sentence to ask if Myers had any last thoughts to offer.

Seated next to his lawyers and facing the likelihood of heading back to prison once again after more than 40 years, Myers, knitted his fingers, thought quietly to himself, then responded.

“No, your honor,” he said. “I don’t have anything to say.”