The massive FBI anti-corruption operation known as Abscam captured the public imagination in 1980 with a cinematic cast of characters: phony Arab sheiks, real mobsters, corrupt local politicians, U.S. congressmen on the take — all of it orchestrated by a cigar-chomping con artist paid by the feds to set up stings.
And the best thing was, they videotaped everything. Now, anybody who thought it could be a movie can stand proud: Abscam forges the spine of “American Hustle,” in theaters now, which opens with the on-screen words: “Some of this actually happened.”
Former FBI supervisor John Good could tell you exactly which parts happened; he oversaw Abscam in its entirety, from 1978 to 1980. The undercover operation put six congressional representatives and one senator in prison for bribery and conspiracy, and secured nearly a dozen other significant convictions. Yet Good says he and his main partner, FBI undercover agent Tony Amoroso, both now in their 70s, were “totally surprised” that anyone wanted to revisit Abscam, a largely forgotten scandal.
Back then, it was dubbed the largest political corruption probe in the bureau’s history, involving more than 100 agents. Among them: supposed sheiks in fancy suits and improvised headdresses, seeking political favors and proffering stacks of $100 bills in return. (The role was mainly played by an agent of Lebanese descent, after an earlier effort by a non-Arabic speaker came hilariously close to disaster.)
Many agree it could never happen again, mainly because stricter guidelines were imposed on sting operations. But today offering bribes in exchange for legislation seems almost quaint.
“The lobbyists do the same things we did, only to a much greater degree,” Good says.
Thirty-five years ago, Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers, a Philadelphia Democrat, famously said on an Abscam tape: “Money talks in this business and bulls--- walks.”
“It’s probably more true today than it was then,” Myers says now. Expelled from Congress, he served 21 months in prison for taking a $50,000 bribe. He considers the operation a waste of money that destroyed “legitimate, honest people.”
“American Hustle” doesn’t dwell on such points. Director David O. Russell sexed up the story with unharnessed cleavage and chest hair galore. He added such scenes as the undercover FBI agent pummeling a supervisor with a desk phone, and a plot line putting the same coke-snorting agent into a volcanic lovers’ triangle.
“None of that ever happened,” says Good, a consultant on the film with retired agent Amoroso. But the erstwhile G-men know exactly why filmmakers make stuff up.
“If they just did it the way Abscam was done, it would be a very boring movie,” Good says.
The real Abscam bore the bland stamp of watchful bureaucrats, from then-FBI Director William Webster, a former federal judge, to careful Justice Department attorneys, on down to the gimlet-eyed auditors who balked at burgeoning expenses. The FBI paid its informant, convicted con man Melvin Weinberg, $3,000 a month, plus bonuses; he constantly complained that the feds were too stingy.
“I’m a swindler,” Weinberg once told the author Robert W. Greene. “There’s only one difference between me and the congressmen I met on this case. The public pays them a salary for stealing.”
The operation was bound to be political dynamite — and sure enough, after Abscam exploded into public view, both the House and Senate convened hearings, raised issues of entrapment and FBI overreach and questioned the agents’ dependence on a swindler.
In the movie, the irrepressible, womanizing Weinberg, now 89, is played by Christian Bale. The main undercover FBI man — a composite of Good, Amoroso and agent Jack McCarthy — is played by Bradley Cooper. Their mutual love interest is Amy Adams, in the role of the swindler’s mistress.
The bureau began its fishing expedition by dipping lines in New York and watching white-collar criminals rise to the bait; then cast its nets in New Jersey and Philadelphia, picking up some municipal and state small fry; and eventually reeled in the Washington whales. The sting took its name from Abdul Enterprises Ltd., a Long Island company the FBI created as a cover for the sheiks, who said they wanted to invest their oil wealth in the United States — for example, in the newly opened Atlantic City casino market — and also obtain permanent residency.
Amoroso and Weinberg posed as the Arabs’ representatives and approached congressmen mainly to grease the immigration skids; most payoffs totaled $50,000, at a time when House members made about $60,000 a year.
The moments in “American Hustle” that hold the most verisimilitude are those re-creating the low-resolution black-and-white videos recorded by hidden cameras. Most of the stings involving congressmen were staged in a stately red-brick colonial home in the 4400 block of W Street in Georgetown, rented by the FBI from an unwitting Washington Post reporter.
“It was wired completely,” recalls Good. “I watched all of the payoffs go down, every single one of them.”
All but one of the convicted lawmakers were Democrats. Today four are dead: Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams (N.J.); Reps. Raymond Lederer (Pa.), Frank Thompson (N.J.) and the lone Republican, Richard Kelly (Fla.). Besides Ozzie Myers, the others still alive are John Jenrette of South Carolina and John Murphy of New York. Neither could be reached for comment.
Myers, 70, a retired building contractor, said he hadn’t seen the movie but understood from family and friends that it was “more of a comedy than it is about the facts of Abscam.”
The sting in his case went down in a hotel at New York’s JFK Airport; in terms of the sheik’s getting a green card, things would go “100 percent” better with Myers in his corner, he said on tape.
Myers took a briefcase holding $50,000, but, he says today, “It is just outrageous, to go after people who had never done anything wrong. Where do you come up with that I was some kind of a hoodlum?”
In 1981, though, he justified the payoff by claiming he was poor. “I took money because I like money,” he told a Philadelphia journalist then. “I feel I didn’t do anything wrong and if anybody offers me $25,000 this afternoon, I will take it.”
“Ozzie was one of my favorite guys,” Good says today.
Sen. Larry Pressler, a Republican from South Dakota, emerged with clean hands, his reputation not only intact but also enhanced.
In the fall of 1979, Pressler needed to retire his campaign debt after a quixotic bid for the GOP presidential nomination. He recalls that a “perfectly well-intentioned” socialite, one of his volunteer fundraisers, had somehow made connections with supposedly flush donors, leading to a meeting at the Georgetown house.
“We chased him, actually,” says Good, explaining how Pressler ended up on camera.
The undercover agents tempted the first-term senator with a $50,000 contribution to introduce a bill to secure residency for the two Arabs. Pressler said he would have his staff look into immigration possibilities, according to transcripts quoted in Greene’s book, “The Sting Man: Inside Abscam.” But he promised nothing.
“In any event, it would not be proper for me to promise to do anything in exchange for a campaign contribution,” Pressler said on tape.
“I thought they were flaky and dishonest,” Pressler recalled last week. “I said, ‘What you’re proposing is illegal.’ . . . I’ve still got the tape somewhere.”
After Abscam hit the headlines, a front-page article in The Post began this way: “Thanks to the FBI’s undercover ‘sting’ operation, there now exists incontrovertible evidence that one senator would not be bought.”
The other evening in Sioux Falls, S.D., Pressler and his wife took in a showing of “American Hustle.” He sensed in advance that his Abscam experience wouldn’t make it into the movie, and he was right.
Nobody cares about the story of a guy who did the right thing, he said. “Had I taken the bribe and gone into rehab, it probably would have been seen as an American success story.”
But for Pressler, 71, Abscam has helped prompt a sequel of sorts. After serving 18 years in the Senate before losing reelection in 1996, he’s attempting a comeback by running as an independent in 2014.
His aim is to fight gridlock and the “sordid” influence of money on elected officials, he said. He also vows to serve only one term so he doesn’t have to bow and scrape for contributions.
“I will have the glorious, glorious experience of not having to raise a dime,” he said.
As for Mel Weinberg, the rogue at the center of it all, the Sunday Telegraph of London caught up with him recently in a Florida retirement community.
To make “American Hustle,” the producers wanted Weinberg’s life-story rights. He sold them — for $250,000, he told the paper. Abscam had provided one more big score.