December 14, 2007

A bit more on Senator Williams

I cited the Abscam case of Senator Harrison A. Willliams yesterday as an example of how people sometimes don't take "no"  for an answer. It was just an example and I didn't plan to get into the late senator's whole sad experience with the legal system but several readers have asked me to say a bit more about that case. I wrote about it in my 1993  book, Language Crimes: The Use and Abuse of Language Evidence in the Courtroom (Blackwell) but here's a shorter answer to one reader's question. Marc Joanisse did some research of his own in which he found that the quid pro quo used at Williams' trial was that the senator received stock certificates in a defunct titanium mine in exchange for his efforts to help some friends (a group that included his own lawyer) locate some investors for that project. That's true, and I didn't get into that issue in my earlier post because I was illustrating a different point. But since readers have requested, I'll talk about the stock certificate point a little.

After it was reasonably clear that Senator Williams' saying "no" in that meeting with the "sheik" would not be good enough evidence, the agents  developed a different scenario using the stock certificates as bait. The prosecution never mentioned that these fake stock certificates were handed to Williams with no explanation as he was hurrying out of a meeting, or that from the get-go he thought that reopening the closed titanium mine was a stupid and impractical pipe-dream, or that he considered these certificates worthless (which they were). Nor was it mentioned that he put these stock certificates in the gym bag he was carrying at the time and casually left it unguarded on the floor of his office until the time he was arrested. If he was involved in a bribery plan, he didn't seem aware of it.

Williams believed that the whole mining episode was misguided. His friends had this wild dream of resurrecting a Virginia titanium mine to make some money. They asked him to help them find investors but, as the tapes give clear evidence, he showed little interest in doing so and never actually tried to find any. But these were his friends and, unfortunately for him, he treated them in a friendly manner.  Incidentally, the titanium that this mine was capable of producing was the kind that Sherwin Williams used to make paint; not the type used for the shields in spacecraft, as was imagined by some. The FBI made dozens of video tapes of  meetings of his friends with undercover agents, but Williams was on only a handful of them. My analysis of his  conributions in those meetings, outlined in my book, showed that he was largely silent and uninformed about their plans.

But Williams was a big fish for the government to catch and getting him involved would be a capstone to their Abscam prosecution. His involvement could have been explained properly if he had had a competent criminal lawyer to represent him at trial. Unfortunately he was represented by a civil attorney who, in the opinion of many, simply dropped the ball. Williams was convicted of bribery and sentenced to three years at Allenwood.

My own involvement with Williams came after he was convicted and waiting to be sentenced. I then lived a block away from his townhouse and I met him one morning while he was out walking his dogs. When he asked what kind of work I did at Georgetown University, I explained that I consulted on criminal and civil law cases as a linguist and his eyes lit up. He gave me copies of the undercover tapes and I spent the next thirty days or so working on them, eventually producing a long linguistic analysis which his office made copies of and distributed to all 100 senators to read in preparation for his impeachment hearing. It's doubtful that many of the senators actually read my report but I got a chance to offer a summary of it on the floor of the senate during his impeachment  hearing. But even this was difficult because only senators, the senate chaplain, and the senate clerk are permitted to speak on the floor of the senate. So my report was read aloud by the senate clerk while I sat next to Williams and silently pointed to the appropriate parts of the large charts I had made while the reading took place. After the clerk finished reading, the senators were allowed to ask me questions. I wasn't permitted to voice my responses so I whispered them to Williams, who repeated them aloud to his senate colleagues. By the third day of the hearing, it had become very clear that the senate was going to vote for his expulsion. During a lunch break, Williams and I walked through a park near the senate office building and I suggested that it would probably be wise for him to tender his resignation rather than be expelled. He agreed, went back in, and resigned.

It was one of the saddest experiences of his life. Mine too.

Posted by Roger Shuy at December 14, 2007 09:56 AM