|By PAUL MICKLE / The Trentonian
|On the afternoon of Feb. 2, 1980, two FBI agents showed up at the Washington home of one of the most powerful Democrats in America, Congressman Frank Thompson, and the political landscape of Greater Trenton was changed forever.
The agents told Trenton's own "Thompy" he was the target of a federal bribery investigation and that the Arab sheik who gave him a briefcase holding $45,000 four months earlier actually was an undercover G man.
By year's end, Trenton's representative in Congress would no longer be a veteran Democrat known for standing up for the working classes, but a 27-year-old Republican named Chris Smith who came out of the anti-abortion wing of the party.
Thompson had been watching his beloved Wake Forest University men's basketball team on television the day agents knocked at his home in the coveted Washington suburb of Alexandria. When asked about the game that evening, Thompy didn't know his alma mater had beaten Virginia 79-77.
The allegations were that worrisome and dumbfounding: Thompson had been told the FBI had videotapes of him and five other congressmen, including Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey, accepting money from either the phony sheik or his supposedly Arab representatives.
The next day, news about the FBI's "Abscam sting" was front page in Trenton and across the country. The stories told how other Jersey politicians Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who was also a state senator, and state Sen. Joseph Maressa of Camden County, had set up Thompson to meet a sheik interested in building a casino in Atlantic City.
The stories said the affable Thompson had bragged to the bogus Arab bigwig that he had influence with a member of Jersey's new Casino Control Commission, lawyer Kenneth McDonald of Haddonfield, and would be able to help the businessman get a gaming license and land for a gambling hall.
After initially declining to comment on the allegations, Thompson issued statements denying any bribe and suggesting he met with the Arabs because he thought they'd generate jobs for Jersey.
A congressman since 1954 who had been close to sainted Jack Kennedy and had risen to the
powerful post of House Democratic Whip, Thompson promised to contest the FBI charges in court and to fight for re-election.
Some observers thought he could win both battles. None other than New Jersey Attorney
General Robert DelTufo, for instance, raised questions about the FBI's investigative tactics
and admitted he had recommended dropping the case against Williams on the ground the senator had been illegally entrapped.
Trenton's old Democratic hands suggested Thompson could win the political battle more easily. Thompson, after all, was a darling of union members and other working people who
had helped JFK and LBJ push through civil rights legislation. Washington insiders had dubbed him the "liberal's liberal."
An unpretentious man who was frugal with his own money, if not tax dollars, Thompson
liked it when Trentonians remarked about the holes in the elbows of his "lucky" tweed
sports jacket or the old cars he preferred to drive.
"And Thompy's staff for constituent services was phenomenal," a Thompson fan remarked
last week. "If you lost your dog and called Thompy, he'd send out somebody to help you."
Still, in the weeks after the story first broke, America's newspapers and nightly television news reports were filled with new details of the probe.
And that didn't bode well for any politician involved.
Abscam was American political corruption at it most colorful, and it cast courtly Thompson
with some crude characters. The congressman from across the river in South Philadelphia, Rep. Michael Myers, became infamous for telling the phony sheiks what no pol would say with the news cameras rolling: "Money talks, bull - - walks."
Of course, the FBI cameras were rolling from behind a hidden mirror in a Washington townhouse where some of the money was passed to the congressmen. One room in the house was set up like a television studio, with a bank of video monitors.
One artist's rendering played on television showed what the money exchanges "might have" looked like. It showed FBI agents with video cameras behind a one-way mirror recording a meeting between two men in suits and another wearing a suit and traditional Arab headwear.
That spring, as Thompson counted all the letters of support he reported coming to his congressional office, Mercer County's Republicans were telling Jack Rafferty, Hamilton's gregarious mayor, that Thompson's congressional seat was his for the taking.
But Rafferty declined because his wife didn't want to move to Washington with the children, then aged 6 and 7, and he didn't want to become a weekend husband and father.
That left the GOP with boyish Chris Smith, whom the party had put up as a sacrificial lamb two years earlier when it could find no one else to challenge Thompy's bid for a 13th term in Congress.
Whatever Smith's electoral weaknesses, they didn't matter. On Nov. 4, Smith beat Thompson by 20,000 votes.
Days later, Thompson and another Congressman, Rep. John M. Murphy of Staten Island, went on trial in federal court in Brooklyn.
Their lawyers. argued that all wasn't what it appeared on the videotapes, that the congressmen dealt with the phony Arabs because they thought they would pump money into the economy.
On Dec. 2, Thompson was convicted of bribery and conspiracy and Murphy was convicted of just the conspiracy count. Smiling but expressing disappointment with the jury on leaving the courtroom, Thompson promised an appeal.
But the appeals court rejected, and the U.S. Supreme Court later declined to hear, the entrapment and other arguments put forth by Thompson and other American pols snared in the Abscam investigation.
In 1983, Thompson was sentenced to three years in federal prison. He served two years
before he was released and went to work as a consultant in Washington. Still maintaining he was innocent, Thompson died in 1989.
These days, Greater Trenton still is represented in Congress by Smith, the earnest Republican who came to office via the downfall of Frank Thompson.
Last winter, Smith joined with labor leaders from across the country to protest management tactics outside the strikebound Delaval plant in Hamilton. Thompy would have been proud of him.