Joseph Silvestri makes his living putting together deals.

His tool is the telephone, which he uses to expedite deals, package deals,, babysit them. When and if the deal becomes reality he collects his fee.

In September 1979 Silvestri thought he had put together the deal of his life, a deal with a $6 million payload he could earn by matching up a willing Arab millionaire, with a hungry casino development firm that needed a $60 million loan. It seemed almost too good to be true.

It was. The "wealthy Arabs" were FBI agents working undercover in an elaborate law enforcement operation. And now, instead of spending his $6 million fee, Joseph Silvestri is spending his days dodging reporters and talking to federal investigators probing the enormous political payoff scandal code-named ABSCAM, for Arab scam.

Silvestri works out of a modest white bungalow near an exit ramp of Rte. 36, one of the four-lane highways that criss-cross central New Jersey near the ocean. His two secretaries work in the living room. His lawyer-partner, a dapper man named Ashley Goodman, works to one of the bedrooms. Silvestri's office is the big, sunny, family room added on behind the kitchen, overlooking the tiny backyard.

For the past decade, Silvestri has been "putting together" housing deals, most of them involving the New Jersey Housing Finance Agency. He would line up a sponsoring group, a builder, an architect, the land, the zoning permits, the state mortgage money, the federal rent subsidies -- assembling them all to form a subsidized housing project that would attract big money from investors hoping for a share of the project's generous tax write-offs. Then he would shepherd the project through the local planning boards, state agencies, and federal bureaucracy.

He got action, he had political contacts, he said. He claimed he could pick up the phone and get through to a congressman, a senator, a local commissioner, a state official. "Remember, you can always talk to anybody," Silvestri once told a reporter.

In 1974, Silvestri began having trouble with a new administration at the state housing agency. He said later he was pressured to split his fees, and after a while refused. In any case, he left the housing business and turned his attention to thriving Atlantic City.

Atlantic City has become a boom town since New Jersey's voters in 1977 approved casino gambling for the once-dowdy seashore city. Six million dollars is not that much money there anymore.

But for Joseph Silvestri, $6 million is still a dazzling amount. He says it slowly savoring each syllable. He had shown the written contract to some close friends, watching with a pleased look while their eyebrows arched over all those zeroes.

To collect that fee, he had to find someone willing to invest $60 million in a casino proposal by Cavanaugh Communities Corp., Silvestri told friends last summer. And until last Saturday he thought he had succeeded, thanks to some people a friend, Alex Feinberg, allegedly told him about last june.

Marshall Weinberg, a vice president of Cavanaugh Communities Corp. of Miami, recalls that Silvestri approached his firm saying that "he had this Arabian connection, Arabs with money interested in just the right deal." t

Arabs? Joe Silvestri is an unlikely candidate for the role of international mortgage broker. He is short, heavyset, plainspoken. He rolls up his shirtsleeves, unbuttons his collar, hitches up his polyester trousers and manages to look mostly like what he once was: a New Jersey builder who came up the hard way in a world where greasing the wheels of government was a time-honored tradition.

People close to him call him a "marshmallow," a softie. Even people squeezing Joe for a deal, for a piece of the action, could count on him reaching into his pocket for a fistful of bills if they needed it, one friend recalled. And he had been touched, friends say, by what he had learned of "those Arabs" that Feinberg allegedly told him about.

The story he recounted to one close friend after meeting the "Arabs" last September seemed plausible, The millionaire head of Abdul Enterprises had watched with alarm the growing Moslem militancy in Iran, with the once-powerful shah fleeing from country to country looking for sanctuary, Silvestri had been told. Who wouldn't want to move his family and fortune from an unstable world like that to the golden shores of the U.S.A?

"I believed it," Silvestri told a friend.

But, as he and everyone else knows now, it just wasn't true. The "Arabs" who were going to help Joe Silvestri earn that glittering fee were. FBI agents.

They were conducting a vast "sting" operation, posting as wealthy Arabs and allegedly being sold a host of favors by members of Congress and state officials.

The FBI agents said that they simply let behind-the-scenes arrangers know that they needed favors, and then sat back and waited for Silvestri and others to steer helpful politicians their way.

Two New Jersey Democratic congressmen. Reps. William J. Hughes and James J. Florio, said Monday that Silvestri contracted them to urge them to meet with his "Arab" associates, but they both declined. Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.), a friend of Silvestri for many years, also con- firmed that he had turned down an approach on behalf of the "Arabs," but Howard would not identify who had contacted him.

Friends confirm that Silvestri was completely taken in by the FBI ruse, believing until Saturday night that he was dealing with men who could make him a fortune. He was "devastated," one friend said, when he learned the truth. Is he cooperating now with the investigation? Silvestri admits he has talked to federal investigators and probably will again, but he refers all other questions to his attorneys.

Silvestri's normal good humor has faded. He is troubled by things that might seem small to others -- like the fact that his daughter's senior class teacher has asked all her classmates to bring in clips about the "Arab scam" for class discussion. "And there she is, sitting right there," he said. He originally wanted to send his worried wife down to Florida to stay with family there, but she wouldn't hear of it.

"I'm staying here," she told a reporter. "He needs me."