Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Abscam
It sounded like something out of a poorly written crime novel. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) launched an operation known as Abdul scam, or Abscam, aimed at preventing the trafficking of stolen property. In time, the operation evolved into a sting to identify corrupt elected officials. Posing as Arab sheiks representing a fictional Arabian company, FBI agents approached numerous elected officials, many of whom were serving in Congress, asking for favors. Lured to hotel rooms and other private properties, the sheiks offered bribes to the targets. Agents videotaped their unsuspecting prey. For members of Congress, the sheiks promised cash payments if the representative would introduce a private immigration bill into the appropriate committee. These secret meetings occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
By the end of the investigation, the FBI had snagged 30 political figures. Seven members of Congress—one senator and six House members—were convicted of accepting bribes. In addition, one New Jersey state senator, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, several members of the Philadelphia city council, and an Immigration & Naturalization inspector were ensnared in the sting. I discuss this odd little scandal in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.
Amusing anecdotes emerged from amidst the corruption. One congressman facing charges, Florida’s Richard Kelly, claimed that he had not really accepted a bribe. He was conducting his own undercover investigation of the sheiks, and the FBI had intervened to spoil Kelly’s investigation. Congressman John W. Jenrette Jr., of South Carolina, obviously inebriated, was videotaped uttering these immortal words when asked if he would accept a bribe: “I’ve got larceny in my blood. I’d take it in a goddamn minute.”
The operation originated in February 1978 when Melvin Weinberg, a con man and swindler who had previously served as an FBI informant, agreed to assist in recovering stolen paintings. Facing three years in prison for their participation in a fraudulent real estate scam, Weinberg and his girlfriend Evelyn Knight knew their only hope to avoid incarceration was to join the scheme. It was one more con in a life filled with cons.
Weinberg was 53 years old in 1978. He had barely made it out of grammar school, preferring to rely on his street smarts rather than finishing his education and pursuing a conventional career. He had devoted his life to the exciting world of white-collar crime. In a 35-year career, Weinberg had hustled men and women from all walks of life on six continents in a series of schemes and scams from real estate to bogus gold contracts. He was not much to look at—short, mostly bald, with tufts of hair sprouting from portions of his head, and a gray beard—and his thick New York accent identified him as Brooklyn born and bred. Still, Weinberg was a con man extraordinaire. Like all talented grifters, he understood the psychology of the easy mark.
His dreams and schemes were legendary. Even at an early age, Weinberg could talk his way out of almost any scrape or persuade even the most educated and sophisticated clients to invest in his enterprises. He had an amazing capacity to concoct a plausible story that his mark would buy with little, if any, suspicion. Sometimes Weinberg’s façade failed him, though, as on one memorable occasion when he was wining and dining a mark in a French restaurant during his first trip to Europe. Posing as a wine connoisseur, Weinberg held up his glass as the waiter poured a small portion to be tasted. Observing the tiny amount of wine, Weinberg misunderstood what he was supposed to do. He snapped at the waiter, “Fill it up, ya fuck. Whaddya think I’m payin’ for?”
The FBI Abscam operation in the late 1970s required Weinberg to create a fake company, the sort of subterfuge that was his specialty. It was called Abdul Enterprises and was headed by two fictional Arab sheiks, Kambir Abdul Rahman and Yassir Habib, who claimed to have invested millions of dollars in the United States. To provide legitimacy for the company, the FBI funneled a million dollars into a Chase Manhattan Bank account. Although several FBI agents worked on the sting, one agent, Anthony “Tony” Amoroso, became intimately associated with the operation owing to his portrayal of Sheik Habib
The operation evolved from its inception. The original purpose was not to ensnare elected officials in a bribery scheme, but that eventually became the goal. The FBI decided to approach elected officials, especially members of Congress, and ask for favors in exchange for cash. Specifically, the “ask” was for the member to sponsor a private immigration bill allowing foreigners affiliated with Abdul Enterprises into the country. The company representatives—the undercover “sheiks”—also asked for building permits and casino licenses in Atlantic City.
The FBI invested much time and money in the operation. The bureau had been tainted by public revelations in the mid-1970s of a series of illegal and unethical activities undertaken during the decades-long tenure of the former director, J. Edgar Hoover. Anxious to rehabilitate its public reputation, the FBI was determined to make an airtight case whenever an elected official accepted a bribe. The agents resolved to go by the book. Tape recordings of telephone conversations and videos of the officials accepting bribes became a standard operating procedure.
John Good was the agent in charge. Tireless, dedicated, and streetwise, Good had the sense to partner with Weinberg. The operation would never have succeeded without a gifted swindler and con man at the helm. The notion of an Arab sheik approaching elected officials with promises of ready cash sounds farfetched and ridiculous, an obvious ploy to entrap them in a crazy, illegal scheme. Yet Good and Weinberg engineered a sting that succeeded beyond what they or anyone thought possible at the outset.
Angelo Errichetti, the Democratic mayor of Camden, New Jersey, as well as a New Jersey state senator, was the first elected official to take the bait. Seemingly unencumbered by ethical qualms, Errichetti promised the sheiks’ representatives that “I’ll give you Atlantic City.” Taking him down was easy. The mayor was a criminal wannabe who had crossed the line, agreeing to guarantee a casino license for $400,000. “Angie Errichetti was one helluva guy,” Weinberg recalled. “I really liked the man.” It was no wonder that Weinberg felt a connection with Errichetti. The two men were kindred spirits, always seeking out deals, legal or otherwise. “He always looks relaxed, but his mind’s goin’ a mile a minute,” Weinberg said with a touch of admiration. “He’s got deals goin’ on all over the place and he’s always lookin’ for a new one.”
The FBI offered Errichetti a deal he could not refuse. If he helped bureau operatives in their sting, they would recommend that the judge provide a reduced prison sentence for his crimes. The mayor readily agreed. He was well-connected in New Jersey and beyond, and he promised to prepare a list of politicians who would be willing to accept bribes.
From these humble beginning, Abscam expanded. As the operation unfolded, several FBI agents as well as Weinberg and Errichetti arranged meetings in a house in the Washington, D.C., Foxhall neighborhood, on a Florida yacht, and in hotel rooms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Typically, Weinberg arranged the meetings through third-party contacts with access to the elected official. Agent Amoroso, posing as the fictional Sheik Habib, handled the negotiations during the meeting while cameras recorded the scene. As an experienced FBI agent, Amoroso knew the right questions to ask to establish that a federal crime had been committed. Throughout 1979, the agents met with a litany of elected officials and went through the spiel. Cash sometimes exchanged hands on the scene. On other occasions, payment came later.
As the operation expanded, Errichetti took to his role with gusto. He offered up two Pennsylvania congressmen, Michael (Ozzie) Myers and Raymond Lederer, both of whom represented districts encompassing the Philadelphia area. As the scheme unfolded, undercover FBI agents approached the two congressmen with a simple proposition: Each man would receive $100,000 if they agreed to help the two fictional sheiks stay in the United States.
Congressman Myers accepted $50,000 from Agent Amoroso in a Travel Lodge suite near Kennedy Airport on August 22, 1979. Myers later complained that he thought the agreed-upon price was $100,000. The money was important to Myers, who was videotaped commenting that “money talks in this business, and bullshit walks.” For his part, Congressman Lederer accepted the $50,000 bribe without complaint.
In an infamous undercover video, Congressman Myers, second from the left, was shown holding an envelope containing $50,000 that he had just received from Agent Amoroso, left. Also shown in the video were Angelo Errichetti, second from right, and Melvin Weinberg.
New Jersey Senator Harrison “Pete” Williams, a Democrat, was arguably the most prominent elected official caught in the Abscam sting. Williams repeatedly met with FBI agents, supposedly to discuss a titanium operation. The plan was for Williams to receive share of the fictional company’s stock, and, in return, the senator agreed to steer government contracts to the company. After he was indicted in October 1980, Williams argued that he was not technically bribed because the stock was worthless. He also argued that he was targeted for the scam because he supported Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy for president over the incumbent, Jimmy Carter. Finally, he complained that he was entrapped by FBI agents, and he would not have engaged in this behavior but for the bogus offers made by the phony sheiks.
A jury did not believe his defenses. After deliberating for 28 hours, the jurors convicted Williams of nine counts of bribery and conspiracy. Sentenced to serve three years in prison, he appealed the convictions, but they were upheld. After the Senate Ethics Committee voted to censure Williams, it was possible that he might be expelled from the Senate. To prevent a vote on expulsion, Williams resigned his seat.
Another New Jersey lawmaker, Congressman Frank Thompson, met with the “sheiks” and promised to assist certain individuals in circumventing immigration laws. Thompson’s constituents loved him. He had served the district for a quarter century, but that fact no longer mattered. Faced with possible expulsion after the indictments became public, Thompson resigned his seat. Like Pete Williams, Thompson was convicted and sentenced to three years in jail. Both he and Williams served two of the three years behind bars.
As typically occurs in criminal investigations, a defendant charged with breaking the law has a strong incentive to cooperate with investigators. Congressman Thompson knew that aiding law enforcement officers might reduce his sentence. He introduced investigators to Congressman John Murphy of Staten Island, chairman of the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee. According to the charges filed against him, Murphy agreed to receive an “unlawful gratuity.” Convicted of the crime, he served three years in prison.
The only Republican lawmaker caught in Abscam, Congressman Richard Kelly of Florida, insisted that he had not accepted a bribe. He was conducting his own investigation, he said. He won points for chutzpah if nothing else. In 1982, he won a temporary victory when the court overturned his conviction, accepting his entrapment defense. On appeal, however, the conviction was reinstated. Kelly served 13 months in prison.
John W. Jenrette Jr., an up-and-coming South Carolina congressman and a member of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, was a notorious alcoholic. While under the influence of alcohol, he agreed to accept a bribe as he uttered the provocative statement that he had larceny in his blood. The Justice Department was already investigating a Jenrette real estate venture. Anxious to lay the land deal to rest, Jenrette stipulated that he would accept a $50,000 bribe if the department dropped the investigation. He also sought a loan from the Arabs because his finances were in disarray.
Jenrette’s saga was especially colorful, capturing headlines in South Carolina and around the country. When he was indicted for his Abscam involvement, Jenrette resigned from the House of Representatives before he could be expelled. As he appealed his conviction, his wife, Rita, left him to pursue a career as an entertainer. A comely blonde with aspirations to become a singer and actress, she appeared nude in Playboy magazine in 1981. The accompanying article was almost as revealing as the photographs. Rita alleged that she and Jenrette had enjoyed sexual intercourse on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building. She later wrote a tell-all book, My Capitol Secrets, about her escapades with Jenrette. The comedy troupe known as the “Capitol Steps” adopted their name from Rita Jenrette’s revelations. John and Rita eventually divorced. Evidence of his perfidy showed Jenrette to be a garden-variety crook, but his wife’s shenanigans transformed him into an object of national ridicule and scorn. A 1989 shoplifting conviction further sullied his reputation. In his dotage, a former congressional bad boy had become a pathetic has-been to a skeptical, snickering public.
Other elected officials escaped prosecution. Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania refused to accept a bribe, thereby avoiding conviction, but he did not have clean hands. He talked with the agents repeatedly and came close to breaking the law when he solicited business investments for his congressional district. Although prosecutors never charged Murtha with a crime, he was named as an unindicted co-conspirator. Murtha eventually testified against Frank Thompson and John Murphy. Emerging from the scandal with his reputation mostly intact, Murtha served as a well-respected congressman for 36 years before his death in 2010.
Senator Larry Pressler, a South Dakota Republican, met with the agents but, unlike many of his colleagues, he refused to accept money or anything of value. After he heard that he might be given funds in exchange for favors, he halted the conversation. “Wait a minute,” he said, “what you are suggesting may be illegal.” When the exchange subsequently became public, some commentators, including legendary television anchor Walter Cronkite, called him a “hero.” Pressler demurred. “I do not consider myself a hero,” he said. “What have we come to if turning down a bribe is ‘heroic’?”
Pressler had a point. Few participants in any phase of Abscam deserved the label “heroic.” Even the FBI agents who ran the operation came under fire for their willingness to rely on a criminal con man as their principal adviser. It was a sordid affair for everyone involved. If the role of law enforcement officers is to investigate criminal activity, critics contended that those same officers should not engage in criminal activity, even if—especially if—that activity was designed to compel others to commit crimes.
Despite its notoriety in the early 1980s, Abscam was largely forgotten by the public within a decade. The investigations and convictions never garnered the same level of media attention as Watergate, but that fact was not surprising. Watergate centered on the president of the United States, the most powerful man in the world and arguably the leader of the free world, while Abscam involved legislators, mostly members of Congress who were not famous outside the Beltway of Washington, D.C. Moreover, considering the salacious scandals that preceded and succeeded it, Abscam was not the type of malfeasance to capture the public imagination. Watergate played out in news coverage and televised hearings over many months, presenting an array of fascinating characters, from nerdy White House counsel John Dean to the folksy North Carolina senator, Sam Ervin, who chaired the committee investigating the affair, to the bow-tie-wearing Harvard law professor Archibald Cox, to the famously shifty president of the United State himself, Richard Nixon. Abscam’s central characters, Melvin Weinberg, Angelo Errichetti, and Anthony Amoroso, were seldom seen and almost never heard. Their images were mostly available only on grainy videos or in photographs buried in the back pages of the newspapers.
Despite the episode’s relative obscurity, Abscam was not completely lost to history. Hollywood produced a 2013 film, American Hustle, loosely based on the scandal. As with most things Hollywood, however, the writers took numerous liberties with the facts, producing a film that garnered generally favorable reviews and captured award nominations, but bore only a passing resemblance to the actual Abscam investigation. The film did little to elevate attention to the scandal beyond a small group of diehards interested in the era of the late 1970s.
As for Abscam’s legacy in law enforcement, on January 5, 1981, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued “The Attorney General Guidelines for FBI Undercover Operations” to provide guidance on appropriate procedures for conducting criminal stings. After Abcam became public, the bureau struggled to defend the legitimacy of its undercover operations. The Civiletti guidelines tacitly acknowledged the need to formalize federal law enforcement guidelines and procedures to avoid future controversy. The guidelines have been updated many times.
Congress also investigated the bureau’s Abscam activities. Beginning in March 1980, the House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights held hearings to determine whether additional steps should be taken to police FBI undercover activities. The subcommittee’s final report, issued in April 1984, addressed important issues raised by the Abscam scandal, namely whether law enforcement officers should undertake operations that could damage the reputation of innocent persons. The report also expressed misgivings about the loss of privacy suffered by private parties who were never indicted or convicted in the operation.
Not surprisingly, the elected officials who accepted bribes ruined their careers. Worse, they undermined trust in government and its officials. Along with the Watergate scandal and the Church Committee hearings on FBI and Central Intelligence Agency abuses, Abscam demonstrated to wary Americans that, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, government is not the solution to the nation’s problems. Government is the problem. It was a conclusion that remained with many citizens long after Abscam had faded from the headlines.