WASHINGTON -- Rep. John Jenrette, D-S.C., testified at his Abscam trial Monday he thought he was dealing with mobsters when undercover agents offered him a $50,000 bribe, and feared he would end up 'floating in the Potomac.'
Taking the witness stand for the second day, Jenrette said he never got the $50,000, but kept talking with undercover agents 'stallling' for time.
'I was scared of who they were,' Jenrette said. He said he was afraid he would end up 'floating in the bottom of the Potomac or somewhere else.'
Jenrette and co-defendant John Stowe, former Myrtle Beach and Richmond, Va. businessman, are on trial for conspiring to accept a $100,000 payoff to sponsor a private immigration bill for a fictitious Arab sheik, and for offering to arrange a similar deal for Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C.
The government has played the jury videotapes showing Jenrette meeting at a Washington townhouse Dec. 4 to discuss the deal with undercover agents posing as representatives of the Arabs.
Two days later, a videotape showed Stowe picking up $50,000, and heard Jenrette's taped telephone call acknowledging that he received the 'package.'
But Jenrette said Monday he went to the townhouse to help Stowe arrange for the Arabs to invest in a legitimate business deal in South Carolina, and he was taken by surprise when the bribe was offered.
'It seemed like it was too easy to be true, and I was scared,' Jenrette said. 'I never had anyone offer me $50,000 and it scared the hell out of me.'
Jenrette said he left the meeting convinced the undercover agents were mobsters.
Two days later, he said Stowe insisted that he hold $10,000.
'I told him I wouldn't take any money,' Jenrette said. 'He insisted.'
The congressman said he kept the cash in his Capitol Hill office until the middle of January when he gave it to his wife Rita to repay her parents who had invested in a real estate venture that Jenrette lost.
In January, Jenrette said he met the agents again at the Washington townhouse because he was scared of them.
Jenrette said he was told he had to get Thurmond or another U.S. senator for a similar deal or 'there would be hell to pay.'
Jenrette said he made an appointment with Thurmond which he never kept at the end of January.
'I was going to let him know exactly what was said and elicit his support for the predicament I was in and to warn him what was coming,' Jenrette said.
The South Carolina Democrat remained cool as he told his story, but fought back tears when he talked about his alcoholism problem.
He said the events of last December and January 'scared me into going' for treatment.
'I know I have the rest of my life to live,' Jenrette said.
'That's why I went ... I just had to get straight.'