Go to Destination: Scandal!

Scamlord

Reporter Finds FBI Eager to Make Improvements

By Lee Lescaze
Washington Post Staff Writer
Feb. 4, 1980
© The Washington Post

On Sept. 19, 1978, I became a landlord for the FBI. I didn't know it at the time.

FBI agents, using the apparently nonexistent Olympic Construction Corp. as a cover, rented my house at 4407 W. St. NW for their "sting" operation ABSCAM.

The FBI is a good tenant. It pays the rent on time. It also likes to make improvements.

Indeed, the man who signed my lease, claiming to be named L. Robert Johnson and to be secretary-treasurer of Arlington-based Olympic Construction, wasn't interested in the house unless he could have permission to install an intricate burglar alarm system, some recessed lighting and wood paneling in the basement.

Johnson indicated the cost of his improvements would be close to $25,000.

From the beginning, Johnson was mysterious. In his rental application to Burdette C. Nicholls, the firm handling my house, he was described as 32 years old, single and earning $75,000 a year.

He gave his last address as the posh Olympic Towers on New York's Fifth Avenue, but a check by the Nicholls office found Olympic Towers had no knowledge of Johnson as an owner or renter in that building.

His bank reference, Security National, vouched for Johnson and when I became curious about the improvements planned for my house, I was referred to an interior decorator, Lee Kaufman in Great Neck, N.Y.

Kaufmann was full of enthusiasm for my house, the tasteful pastels he would paint it, the choice paneling he would install and the attractive ceiling lighting for the large basement room where the main "sting" action apparently took place.

He didn't mention installing hidden cameras and microphones. I approved the remodeling by telephone.

Shortly after Johnson moved in, the neighbors began to notice that this bachelor renting a six-bedroom house for $1,200 a month rarely spent the night at home but had numerous well-dressed, briefcase-carrying visitors, all male.

The FBI apparently noticed itself being noticed. Shortly after the renovations were completed, the FBI's "maid" invited one neighbor (who doesn't want to be named) to take a tour of my house. The neighbor saw a teletype machine, a large supply of liquor and nothing else unusual. She thinks the tour was to convince her that nothing strange was going on.

Another neighbor, David Markun, was invited over for a drink. He took a rain check which he never used.

Margaret Osmer, another neighbor who then was a correspondent for ABC-TV, had the strongest suspicions that Johnson of Olympic Construction was more than a businessman with odd habits.

In New York, where I had been assigned by The Washington Post in July 1977, I received occasional reports of these strange activities from neighbors. I had never seen Johnson or the renovated house.

From the beginning, the FBI knew that I was a newspaper reporter and apparently didn't care. I could only guess who was my tenant was and I didn't spend much time thinking about the mystery. The house had been empty for more than two months because an earlier tenant had left abruptly after taking poor care of it.

I was happy to have a rent check each month and my real estate agent told me the house was being extremely well maintained.

When I think about the house, I wondered if the Central Intelligence Agency was using it as a safe house. Osmer was much closer. She guessed it was either the FBI or the Mafia and, it turns out, she was half-right.

Now, I ask myself what would I have done if I had known? Would I have written a story that would have revealed ABSCAM or would I have continued as a witting scamlord?

I met Johnson and saw my renovated house for the first time Jan. 23. The Post had asked me to return to Washington this summer and I wanted to see what had been done to the house and discuss whether Johnson would be willing to give up the house a year before the September 1981 expiration of his lease.

(Johnson had insisted on a three-year lease with no provision for early termination. I had been eager to get a tenant and had expected to stay in New York through 1981 so I agreed.)

Johnson met me, my wife and two daughters at the front door at 8:30 a.m. For him, it must have been an annoying interruption of the undercover operation to have to play tenant and discuss curtains and wallpaper.

According to informed sources, only three days before Johnson showed us through the house the FBI had entertained one of its congressional visitors.

The TV set was on in the library. Coffee was brewing in the kitchen. Johnson, a man of medium build with a small mustache, was reserved and hospitable.

Whatever Johnson thought of the visit, it was a big disappointment to me.

Johnson said he would leave the house this summer but demanded a compensation of $7,000 to $8,000. I knew I'd have to look for a temporary home elsewhere.

It was also clear that Johnson and his decorator have different taste from my wife and me. The basement paneling which included a large, well-stocked wine rack is a disagreeably dark, cheap-looking imitation barn wood.

It contrasted strikingly with the elegant antique furniture on the ground floor which NBC-TV reported was borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution for ABSCAM.

The antiques, Johnson said, were the reason he needed an elaborate security system.

The alarm was the only thing Johnson talked about with enthusiasm. He explained to me that it worked three ways: it secretly dialed a warning to any preselected phone number, it set off an alarm and it turned on floodlights outside the house. He seemed proud of it. I thought to myself I'd never turn it on.

Johnson showed my what he called "the panic button." One touch and it secretly sends a warning outside the house without making a sound to let anyone inside know an alarm has been sounded.

The alarm also covered the garage where Johnson had a beige van with New Jersey plates.

The visit also added to the mystery. A man whose company office was allegedly in Rosslyn, a short drive away, had a large telephone company installation to handle several phone lines and a teletype. The house was cleaner than any lived-in house I've ever seen.

Most peculiar of all was the front basement room. It was locked and Johnson said he didn't have the key. He told us that the key was kept at his office because the room was full of Olympic Construction Corp. records.

It now appears the room was full of videotape equipment and videotapes that a number of visitors to my house wish didn't exist.

The cameras and microphones apparently are concealed behind the basement paneling or in the ceiling where recessed lighting was installed. The FBI also changed the counter on the basement wet bar on a wall that looks directly out on the large basement room.

Unless the FBI tore into upstairs walls, the microphones are most likely hidden in light fixtures. There are new lighting fixtures in the kitchen, powder room and stairway and a new chandelier over the dining room table.

Johnson's tour pointed out the tiniest details. He noted that the kitchen range doesn't work too well and there is a crack in one of the refrigerator trays.

He was sorry, but not greatly concerned, about the disappearance of one lighting fixture and several curtains we had left in the house.

They hadn't fit into the FBI decorating scheme.

Sometime in the course of ABSCAM the FBI scaled down its spending -- perhaps it had budget problems, or perhaps it was trying to look like a normal tenant with limited funds to invest in a rented house.

Johnson wrote to the rental agent in 1978 about a $5,000 plan he had for landscaping the back yard. "As I told you, I feel that I have expended the maximum amount of my funds that I feel I can justify in improving this leasehold and suggest again that Mr. Lescaze share in any additional cost of improvements," the letter said.

I phoned Johnson yesterday at my house. Another agent from the Washington Field Office answered. Could I see my house? I asked.

Not today, he answered. "It's pretty busy out here," he said. "We're still chasing people down." Two cars were in the driveway, the shades were drawn, as neighbors say they always are, and agents peeped out the kitchen window from time to time at reporters and photographers watching the house.

The agent wanted me to know that there is a letter in the mail to me saying I can have my house back this summer without paying $7,000 to $8,000. The FBI doesn't need it much longer.

Presumably, the agents will remove the hidden cameras and microphones, but how can I be sure? Presumably they will also take all the briefcases and paper bags full of money.

I asked to speak to Johnson, my tenant. "He's totally unavailable," the agent told me. "I doubt you'll ever see him again."

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