The FBI Created A Sting Operation To Bribe Members Of Congress
“American Hustle,” directed by David O. Russell, stars Christian Bale as a scam artist who is forced into action as an informant. Bradley Cooper is the FBI agent who uses him.
Even though identities have been altered, it’s no secret that the movie is based on the notorious FBI sting operation codenamed Abscam. In essence, the undercover operation was a federal corruption scandal that spanned the United States from New Jersey to Florida in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Seven members of Congress were swept up in the sting operation, including six members of the House of Representatives and a long-serving U.S. Senator and a prominent New Jersey state legislator, three Philadelphia councilmen, and a variety of other high-ranking politicians.
Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), Camden Democratic Mayor Angelo Errichetti, New Jersey Democratic Representative Frank Thompson Jr., and other politicians were arrested after being caught on illegally filmed undercover footage taking tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.
It was a sting operation that continues to enrage defense lawyers, who say it was focused on violations committed by the government itself. The scandal was labeled a case of prosecutorial misconduct by a former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey, who criticized the government for using “outrageous” methods.
Mel Weinberg helped orchestrate the sting operation, despite being monitored by his FBI handlers. Weinberg was reportedly unprincipled, but he had the kind of guts to persuade anyone to do almost anything.
Abscam developed out of a routine probe into white-collar corruption on Long Island, according to former FBI agent John Good, who supervised the two-year operation.
Mel Weinberg had expended his ill-gotten profits as quickly as he obtained them. Plus, he used many props to make his actions believable, including private jets and limousines, but also on ladies, horses, and pricey liquor.
Good describes Mel as a “fantastic con man.” “He was a very, very intelligent guy. A little on the crude side, but with a magnificent ability to con people. He was a significant part of the case. Without him, it’s unlikely we ever would have had a case.”
Weinberg had enormous hopes for the future, and the FBI only caught up with him after he set up one of his more intricate money-making schemes. He had set up a fictitious multinational banking and investment company in a lavishly furnished leased office in Melville, Long Island. He renamed his business “London Investors” and set up fake offices in Zurich, London, and New York.
London Investors positioned itself as an offshore funding facilitator, concentrating on businessmen who couldn’t get loans from traditional lenders.
The con was focused on hefty “appraisal and processing” advance application fees. The front end was like that. The back end of the business, however, was devoid of funds. Weinberg would approve the fees and then stall for months, often racking up extra fees, before the allegedly offshore bank refused the loan application. The victims, in most cases, were totally unaware that they had been duped.
However, Weinberg’s luck ran out in 1977, when a Pittsburgh real estate agent who had been tricked by the scheme reported the fraud case to the FBI. A federal grand jury indicted the Bronx native for mail fraud, wire fraud, and conspiracy shortly after.
Weinberg’s career seemed to be at an end. If he couldn’t negotiate a bargain with the authorities, he had no choice but to go to jail. That’s when Good, on the lookout for new major crime cases on Long Island, came upon Weinberg.
The FBI’s Pittsburgh field office had sent a regular interoffice memo to the Hauppauge field office summarizing the case against Weinberg. The FBI supervising agent was told that, even though the criminal case originated in Pittsburgh, London Investors worked in Good’s backyard.
Following his reading of the paper, Good started to consider the possibilities Weinberg could make an excellent informant for targeting white-collar criminals, he reasoned.
“Mel Weinberg and I had met, and he agreed to cooperate, and he began working with us,” Good said in an interview. “One thing led to another, and we had the potential for a major undercover operation.”
For months, the operation’s primary objective was to bring down people who were committing the same kinds of fraud as Weinberg. The informant, who was always ready with a lie, invented yet another con. They came up with a scenario in which they were representing a (fake) arab Sheikh.
The aim was to entice some OPEC-nation Arab investors with deep pockets to come on board with the prospect of big money. The FBI formed a corporation named Abdul Enterprises Ltd. to represent the interests of the fictional Kambir Abdul Rahman, reportedly a fabulously wealthy Arab businessman tied to royalty, as a cover if someone investigated their backstory.
Weinberg was the company’s founder. Undercover operative Anthony Amoroso, who adopted the pseudonym “Tony DeVito” and acted as Abdul’s “personal building engineer,” was one of the FBI special agents assigned to the case. To vouch for Sheik Rahman’s wealth, a bank was appointed. When the FBI brought in an agent of Lebanese descent to play him, a second sheik, Yassir Habib, was introduced.
At this stage, the FBI operation was given a name, which was based on Abdul and fraud. Abscam was the name assigned to it.
The agents worked on various racketeering and bribery investigations for nearly a year, all while keeping Weinberg’s position as an informant a secret. But the operation took a turn when one of the many middlemen drawn by the fragrance of Arab gold — a former swindler named William Rosenberg who had already spent time for stock theft — confronted Weinberg with a transaction involving the port of Camden, and the city’s mayor, Angelo Errichetti, whom Rosenberg implied was interested.
Errichetti, a powerful state senator and a significant Democratic power broker in South Jersey, possessed tremendous clout. He was said to have ties to state regulators regulating Atlantic City’s casino boom, where all construction was dependent on gaming licenses being issued.
Weinberg was scheduled for a meeting, and on December 1st, 1978, the mayor arrived at Abdul Enterprises in Long Island. The South Jersey politician made it known he will deliver, according to surveillance recordings of the meeting with Errichetti. He said, “I’ll give you Atlantic City.” “Without me, you do nothing.” He appeared to have clout with the state’s Casino Control Commission and its vice-chairman, Kenneth N. MacDonald, a personal associate.
Later, Errichetti was charged with offering to seek a casino license for Abdul Enterprises in exchange for a $25,000 initial payment and a gross payment of $400,000.
Abscam’s approach to Errichetti shifted the case into a massive government corruption probe, with the mayor acting as a go-between for far bigger politicians at Capitol Hill. Errichetti told Weinberg and the agents at one of their meetings that he met congressmen who would take bribes. Raymond F. Lederer and Michael Myers, both from Philadelphia, would be incriminated later.
The list expanded rapidly. Trenton’s Rep. Frank Thompson Jr. was a tall, silver-haired man who had served in Congress since 1955 and was a Kennedy political ally. Thompson headed the influential House Administration Committee. Democrats John M. Murphy of Staten Island and John Jenrette of South Carolina and Republican Richard Kelly of Florida are among the members of Congress. Senator Harrison A. Williams of New Jersey is also on the list.
Meetings were conducted by the FBI at airports, hotel rooms in Atlantic City, and in offices on Long Island and in Florida. Later, the team purchased a yacht that had been confiscated by U.S. Customs in a drug raid and used it to host parties for politicians.
Williams, Thompson, and other members of Congress swept up in the sting were charged in the months that followed. The three Philadelphia council members, Errichetti and other political operatives with connections to Williams and Errichetti, were eventually imprisoned.
Most people involved have died since then. Lederer was sentenced to ten months in jail after being accused of conspiracy and bribery. At the age of 70, he died in 2008. Thompson was sentenced to almost two years by the federal government. He died in 1989.
Richard Kelly, the other Republican arrested in Abscam, was found guilty of bribery and conspiracy after saying he had accepted $25,000 in cash as part of his own corruption probe. U.S. District Judge William B. Bryant later reversed Kelly’s conviction, arguing that federal officials used “outrageous tactics” and should have avoided threatening Kelly after he turned down original bribe attempts. On appeal, his conviction was reinstated.
Errichetti was incarcerated for almost three years. After his release, he said, “I can only blame myself for the tremendous ego I developed, the kind of ego that gets a politician into trouble,” The former Camden mayor later worked as a real estate consultant before passing away. He was 84 years old when he died.
Williams, who was sentenced to three years in jail, fought his removal from the Senate by arguing he was a survivor of FBI corruption. He resigned after six days of floor debate and the possibility of dismissal. “I believe time, history, and the Almighty God will vindicate me and the principles for which I have fought here in the Senate,” Williams said in his farewell address to the house. He died in 2001, aged 81.
Weinberg resided on Florida’s Space Coast, not far from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center until his death aged 93. He defined the investigation as “so easy.” “But it could never happen again.”