Former Sen. Harrison A. Williams Jr., a popular champion of organized labor whose career was ended by the Abscam bribery scandal, has died. He was 81.
Williams, who had battled cancer and heart ailments in recent years, died Saturday at St. Clare’s Hospital in Denville, N.J.
Before his fall from grace, Williams was called New Jersey’s “senator for life” because of his enormous popularity. He was in the Senate from 1959 to 1982.
Known as “Pete,” Williams fought for a range of social welfare laws and urban transit programs. He was instrumental in passage of such landmark laws as the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which protects worker pensions, and the Coal Mine and Health Safety Act.
He helped pass legislation that created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and had a major role in passage of the Urban Mass Transit Act of 1964, the first federal law to provide mass transportation assistance to states and cities. He also was the first chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Aging.
But his political career ended after he was charged in the Abscam sting. In the FBI corruption investigation, begun in 1978, agents posed as Arab sheiks or their representatives and offered bribes to members of Congress.
Williams was indicted in 1980 and convicted in 1981 on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy for promising to use his office to further a business venture in which he had a hidden interest. Others convicted in the Abscam probe included six U.S. representatives.
Claiming he was a victim of FBI misconduct, Williams fought expulsion efforts but eventually resigned from the Senate in 1982, the year before his term would have ended. If he had been expelled, it would have been the first expulsion from the Senate since the Civil War.
“I know I broke no laws. . . . I believe time, history and almighty God will vindicate me,” Williams said in his resignation speech. He claimed that he was entrapped and that evidence was tainted.
He was sentenced to three years in prison, serving most of his sentence at the federal correctional facility in Allenwood, Pa. He was the first senator to be jailed in 80 years.
Williams finished his term at Integrity House, a halfway house in Newark, N.J., and after his release in 1986 became a member of its board of directors, serving until his death.
Last year, he sought a pardon from President Clinton but was turned down. Mike McCurry, a former Williams aide who later served as Clinton’s press secretary, said people would remember Williams for his impressive legislative record, not Abscam.
“Pete Williams was one of those guys who got more done than anybody will ever know because he was a quiet, behind-the-scenes orchestrator of legislation,” McCurry told the Star-Ledger of Newark.
Former Rep. Peter Rodino said Williams sought to strengthen worker rights and improve working conditions.
“He was certainly a person who worked in the interest of the people, and he was a major force before he got caught up in all that happened,” Rodino said.
Williams practiced law in New Jersey and unsuccessfully ran for the state Assembly before winning a vacant seat in the House of Representatives in 1953. He won a full term in 1954, but lost his bid for reelection in the Republican sweep of 1956. He went on to win a Senate seat in 1958, defeating longtime Republican Rep. Robert W. Kean, the father of former Gov. Thomas Kean.
Williams was easily reelected three times, rising in seniority to become chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee in 1971--a post he held until the Republicans took control of the Senate a decade later.
The son of a Republican businessman, Williams graduated from Oberlin College, served as a Navy pilot in World War II and later graduated from Columbia Law School.
He is survived by his second wife, Jeanette, and four children from a previous marriage.