Mark Twain once said: "It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress." Even if he was only joking, the political realities of Washington can be frightening and even depressing for the average citizen, what with Watergate, Koreagate, Abscam and so on. The unfortunate perception of many people that politicians and corruption go hand-in-hand has been reinforced over the years by a continuing number of indicted and convicted elected officials.
"The Sting Man: Inside Abscam," by Robert W. Greene, is an absorbing and at times hilarious book with a strong undercurrent of outrage against those who, entrusted with power, abuse it for their own gain. It takes us through hidden corridors of corruption, where we encounter what we instinctively know exists. Focusing on influential members of the Congress and lesser public officials, the book portrays the ugly side of politics. It's a memorable study of conflicts of interest, sordid business deals, dishonest lawyers, the mob and an array of characters who, in the words of the author, are "equalized by greed."
Greene, who has headed investigative reporting teams that have twice won Pulitzer Prizes, structures this well-written work around the life and career of convicted con man Mel Weinberg, who conceived the scandal that shook the foundations of the Congress. Greene depicts young Weinberg, an upstart merchant, riding through his Brooklyn neighborhood, throwing iron bolts through windows to benefit his family's plate-glass business. From there, Weinberg moved on to highly profitable scams that bilked an array of unlikely customers, including Bolivian government officials, a member of the terrorist Red Brigade in Italy and a Botany Clothes representative in this country, as well as hundreds of assorted bankers, lawyers and other freewheeling but desperate entrepreneurs.
After a conviction in federal court, and faced with the possibility of his mistress going to prison, Weinberg was persuaded by the FBI to become the scout who led a Grade-B movie cast of FBI cavalrymen into the badlands of New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia, and Congress. At times, Abscam is reminiscent of the old Keystone Koy comedies. Once, because of budget limitations, Weinberg had to buy and serve kosher food from a Jewish deli to fake Arab leader and a very perplexed Jewish Abscam target. On another occasion, the FBI refused to finance a yacht party: Weinberg is reported to have said: "Screw it. We'll make the guests pay for their own party." In the words of Greene, it was "the ultimate boat ride . . . a U.S. senator and the major of a major city clinked glasses with a strange assortment of swindlers, hustlers, pornographers, forgers, narcotics smugglers and professional gamblers."
"The Sting Man" at times reads like good fiction. Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti of Camden, N.J., was one of the first to become enthusiastically involved in Abscam. His schemes for securing Arab money were, according to Weinberg, unlimited: "The major offered or gave Abscam agents hot diamonds, guns and munitions, forged CDs, counterfeit money, stolen paintings, leasing contracts, municipal garbage contracts, unregistered boats for dope-running, use of Port Camden . . . as a narcotics depot, Atlantic City zoning changes, a list of 13 bribable state and city officials . . . directly or indirectly, five United States congressmen and a senator." Between these offers, additional congressmen are snared in the FBI Abscam net, via Weinberg, and walk away with $50,000 stuffed in their pockets and briefcases.
It is interesting to learn that Abscam was originally set up simply to test the waters of white-collar crime and not to catch Washington lawmakers. So the catch surprised everyone involved -- except Mel Weinberg, the master of the scam and the stall. "I'm a swindler. There's only one difference between me and the congressmen I met on this case. The public pays them a salary for stealing."
The issue of entrapment is real in this scandal, but nowhere in Greene's book is there a discourse on the subject. I found myself waiting for Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes to leap from the pages and thunder his disapproval of the FBI, as he did in one celebrated case:
"For my part, I think it a lesser evil that some criminals should escape than that the government should play an ignoble part."
Yet, in fairness to Greene, he opened his book by saying, "'The Sting Man' is the story of Mel Weinberg and Abscam as seen through his eyes. It is not the authoritative history of Abscam. Nor does it pretend to be." Weinberg's response to entrapment is simple: "You can't con an honest person."
The strength and importance of this book are its courageous insights into the causes of corruption. Focusing doggedly on the raw dishonest behavior of elected officials, Greene skillfully explains the crucial function of some lawyers who operated as middlemen (bagmen/messengers) between the politicians and the Mob. He also raises the persistent and troubling question of integrity when he examines why U.S. attorney for Newark Robert J. Del Tufo did not impanel a grand jury to hear evidence and pursue the systemic corruption within his jurisdiction, corruption revealed during the Abscam operation.
Few Americans will forget the Abscam videotaped scenes of congressmen, their hands out, accepting bribes. "The Sting Man" is equally graphic as it describes powerful people whose integrity and character have rotted on the vines of public trust.