||This article possibly contains original research. (December 2008)|
Abscam (sometimes ABSCAM) was a United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting operation run from the FBI's Hauppauge, Long Island, office in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The operation initially targeted trafficking in stolen property but was converted to a public corruption investigation. "Abscam" was the FBI codename for the operation.
The investigation ultimately led to the conviction of a United States senator, six members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Until 1970, only ten members of Congress had ever been convicted of accepting bribes.
In 1978, the FBI launched its first major operation to target corrupt public officials. The FBI hired Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist, to help plan and conduct the operation. The FBI formed Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., as its front company for the investigation.
FBI employees posed as Karim Abdul Rahman, a fictional Middle Eastern sheikh, in videotaped meetings with targeted government officials.[full citation needed][page needed] The agents posing as Rahman offered the officials money in return for political favors, including:
- Political asylum in the U.S.
- Involvement in an investment scheme for a high-class hotel[clarification needed (what kind of involvement?)]
- Help in transferring money out of his country
When law enforcement authorities announced the operation, they said that "Abscam" was a contraction of "Arab scam".  After complaints from the American-Arab Relations Committee, officials said it was a contraction of "Abdul scam", after the name of its fictitious front company.
Of the thirty-one targeted officials, one senator, Harrison A. Williams (D-NJ), and six members of the House of Representatives John Jenrette (D-SC), Richard Kelly (R-FL), Raymond Lederer (D-PA), Michael "Ozzie" Myers (D-PA), Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), and John M. Murphy (D-N.Y.) were convicted of bribery and conspiracy in separate trials in 1981. Murphy's conviction differed with the wording of the bribery as "receiving an unlawful gratuity" which was later set aside in another court, and he served three years for conspiracy charges only, in prison. Murphy was not filmed taking the $50,000 that most other participants took that day, instead arguing on tape with attorney Howard Criden about who would pick up Murphy's money for him, which Criden did pick up at a Kennedy Airport Hotel, for Murphy. While most of the politicians resigned, Myers had to be expelled and Williams did not resign until the vote on his expulsion was almost due. Five other government officials were convicted, including New Jersey State Senator Angelo Errichetti; members of the Philadelphia City Council, including Council President George Schwartz, Majority Leader Harry Jannotti, and Councilman Louis Johanson; and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Senator Harrison "Pete" Williams (D-NJ) was indicted on October 30, 1980 and convicted on May 1, 1981 on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy to use his office to aid in business ventures. Williams repeatedly met with the FBI agents, and had worked out a deal where he would become involved in a titanium mining operation by way of having 18% of the company's shares issued to his lawyer, Alexander Feinberg. Williams then promised to steer government contracts to the venture by using his position in the Senate.
At his trial, lawyers for Williams argued that the Senator had not actually been bribed because the stock in the titanium mining company was worthless. Other defenses attempting to have the charges dismissed included that he was a victim of selective prosecution by the Justice Department because he had supported the presidential bid of Ted Kennedy over Jimmy Carter in the Democratic primary. These premises were not accepted by the jury, who convicted Williams after 28 hours of deliberation on May 1, 1981. Later appeals made by Williams included arguments that a main prosecution witness had perjured himself and that the Senator had been a victim of entrapment. The guilty verdict was upheld, and the Senator was sentenced to three years in prison for his crimes.
Because of the convictions, the Senate Ethics Committee voted to censure Senator Williams and put a motion to the floor to expel the Senator for charges of bringing dishonor upon their house of Congress and his "ethically repugnant behavior". Supporters of Williams moved that the censure was enough, and that the expulsion was unnecessary. The Senate voted to censure Williams, but before the vote on his expulsion could occur, Senator Williams resigned his seat in the Senate. In his resignation speech, the Senator proclaimed his innocence and argued that the investigation into his activities was a grievous assault on the rights of the Senate, and that the other senators should be wary of unchecked investigations into their activities by other branches of the government.
Williams served two years of his three-year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Newark, New Jersey. He served the remainder of his term at the Integrity House halfway house, where he became a member of the board of directors until his death by cancer on November 17, 2001. He also attempted to receive a presidential pardon from President Bill Clinton, but his request was denied.
Williams was the first Senator to be imprisoned in almost 80 years, and had the expulsion motion been approved, would have been the first Senator to be expelled from the Senate since the Civil War.
Frank Thompson (D-NJ) was a congressman from Trenton, New Jersey who was indicted and convicted of accepting a bribe from an FBI agent posing as an Arab sheik. Well-loved by his constituents, he was the longest-serving member of Congress indicted in Abscam.
Thompson abstained on vote to expel Rep. Myers, the first Congressman to be indicted. Thompson himself was not expelled from the House of Representatives because he lost his re-election campaign in 1980 to Republican Chris Smith, a relatively unknown GOP candidate who in 1978 had run against Thompson as a sacrificial lamb candidate. The 1980 election was won by Smith by a margin of 20,000 votes. On December 29, 1980, Thompson resigned his seat in the US House of Representatives. Smith has represented Thompson's former district continuously through the 113th United States Congress.
On December 2, 1980, Thompson was indicted on bribery charges. Thompson spent $24,000 of campaign funds fighting the charges and appealing his conviction on grounds of entrapment.
Thompson was convicted of bribery and conspiracy charges and served three years in prison as his sentence starting in 1983. He served two years before being released, and worked as a consultant in Washington until his death in 1989.
In 1982 the conviction of Richard Kelly was overturned on the grounds of entrapment. However, an appeals court upheld the conviction and Kelly served 13 months in prison.   (He had been videotaped jamming $25,000 into his pockets. He then turned to one of the agents and asked "Does it show?")
Also approached by the FBI
John Murtha (D-PA) was one of the Congressmen videotaped in an encounter with undercover FBI operatives. Although never indicted or prosecuted, he was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the scandal. As such, he testified against Frank Thompson (D-NJ) and John Murphy (D-NY), the two Congressmen mentioned as participants in the deal at the same meeting. A short clip from the videotape shows Murtha stating "I'm not interested, I'm sorry. At this point..." in direct response to an offer of $50,000 in cash.
In November 1980, the Justice Department announced that Murtha would not face prosecution for his part in the scandal. The U.S. Attorney's Office reasoned that Murtha's intent was to obtain investment in his district. Full length viewing of the tape shows Murtha citing prospective investment opportunities that could return "500 or 1000" miners to work. In July 1981, the House Ethics Committee also chose not to file charges against Congressman Murtha, following a mostly party line vote. The resignation later that day of Republican E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., the panel's special counsel, has been interpreted as an act of protest.
Murtha remained prominent in Congress, and was re-elected by his constituency 13 times over the course of 26 years before his death on February 8, 2010.
Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD) refused to take the bribe, saying at the time, "Wait a minute, what you are suggesting may be illegal." He immediately reported the incident to the FBI. When Senator Pressler was told Walter Cronkite referred to him on the evening news as a "hero" he stated, "I do not consider myself a hero... what have we come to if turning down a bribe is 'heroic'?"
The FBI approached Bob Guccione, publisher of Penthouse, with a proposal. Guccione was in the process of building the Penthouse Boardwalk Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey and needed financing. Weinberg approached Guccione and told him that an Arab sheikh wanted to invest $150 million in the casino project, but only if the casino had obtained a gaming license. Weinberg wanted Guccione to pay a $300,000 bribe to New Jersey gaming officials to get the license. Guccione responded by saying "Are you out of your mind?" After the Abscam scandal came to light, Guccione sued the federal government, but lost.
When the investigation became public in early 1980s, controversy centered on the use of the "sting" technique and Weinberg's involvement in selecting targets. Although Weinberg was found to have previously engaged in numerous felonious activities, he avoided a three-year prison sentence and was paid $150,000 in connection with the operation. Ultimately, all of the Abscam convictions were upheld on appeal, although some judges criticized the tactics used by the FBI and lapses in FBI and DOJ supervision.
In the wake of Abscam, Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued "The Attorney General Guidelines for FBI Undercover Operations" ("Civiletti Undercover Guidelines") on January 5, 1981. These were the first Attorney General Guidelines for undercover operations, and they formalized procedures necessary to conduct undercover operations.
Following the initial press accounts about the Abscam investigation, Congress held a series of hearings to examine FBI undercover operations and the new Civiletti Undercover Guidelines. The House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights began hearings on FBI undercover operations in March 1980 and concluded with a report in April 1984. Among the concerns expressed during the hearings were the undercover agents' involvement in illegal activity, the possibility of entrapping individuals, the prospect of damaging the reputations of innocent civilians, and the opportunity to undermine legitimate rights to privacy.
In March 1982, after the Senate debated a resolution to expel Senator Harrison A. Williams for his conduct in Abscam, the Senate established the Select Committee to Study Undercover Activities. In December 1982, the Committee issued its final report, which was generally supportive of the undercover technique but observed that its use "creates serious risks to citizens' property, privacy, and civil liberties, and may compromise law enforcement itself".
FBI documents later disclosed in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, consisting of newspaper clippings and letters written to the FBI, revealed a mixed response of the American public. Some Americans supported the FBI, but others argued that Abscam was an entrapment scenario ordered by a revenge-minded FBI who earlier had been stung by Congressional inquiries into acts of police brutality and similar widespread abuses. Congressional concern about sting operations persisted, creating numerous additional guidelines in the ensuing years:
- The Civiletti Guidelines – 1980–1981
- The Smith Guidelines – 1983
- The Thornburgh Guidelines – 1989
- The Reno Guidelines – 2001
During the course of Abscam, the FBI handed out more than $400,000 in "bribes" to Congressmen and middlemen.
In his book, The Dangers of Dissent, historian Ivan Greenberg suggests that the FBI's aggressive investigation of political corruption might have been a response to the years of criticism the agency had received from Congressional investigations: "Was this [ABSCAM] payback for the Church Committee hearings? The FBI wanted to punish the Congress for exposing its past corruption." Greenberg cites FBI Director William Webster's 1980 speech to the Atlanta Bar Association as evidence, in which Webster stated that "In the FBI we've been under attack for past incidents and circumstances. It's quite understandable for those in Congress who love their institution, who are trying to rebuild its reputation and the confidence of the American people, to have an encounter and deal with a situation of this kind, and emotions run high. It's my sense that the good sense of the Congress, similar to the emotions in the Bureau when they had their times, that now people are saying, well, let's wait and see what the facts are..." However, Greenberg does not provide evidence beyond this public comparison for his allegation.
In popular culture
French director Louis Malle adapted the Abscam story into a film script entitled Moon Over Miami, with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi set to star, with Belushi playing a fictionalized version of Weinberg; Belushi's death in March 1982 scuttled plans for the film. Saturday Night Live parodied the scandal in a skit entitled "The Bel-Airabs" (a spoof of The Beverly Hillbillies), February 9, 1980. The incident was also referenced in the Seinfeld episode "The Sniffing Accountant". In music, artist Prince refers to the Abscam story in the track "Annie Christian" from his 1981 album Controversy. Abscam was also mentioned in the film Donnie Brasco, when an agent suggests that a boat used in the operation be used undercover to impress Mafia kingpin Santo Trafficante, Jr.. A 1981 Bloom County comic strip in which Milo Bloom envisions himself as a senator on trial has him accused of (among many things) "taking money from FBI agents posing as Arab camel scalpers". Abscam was also mentioned as an insult to an FBI agent on an episode of Simon & Simon. The Doonesbury comics also parody the investigation; they show congressmen claiming that they were doing the sting operation to bust FBI agents who were bribing elected officials and working for foreign organizations hostile to the United States.
The ABSCAM operation is dramatized in the 2013 feature film American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell and starring Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Jennifer Lawrence. The film is described as a "fictionalization," rather than a straight adaptation.
- Operation Greylord
- Operation Tennessee Waltz
- Jack Shaheen, Abscam: Arabiaphobia in America (1980, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee)
- "The Investigations at a Glance; Origin Disclosure Results Inquiries Under Way". The New York Times. February 10, 1980. Retrieved 19 March 2013. "The two-year investigation was directed from the FBI's office in Hauppauge, Long Island, and has been under the supervision of Assistant Director Neil J. Welch, who heads the bureau's New York division, and Thomas P. Puccio, the head of the Justice Department's Organized Crime Strike Force for the Eastern District of New York." (Abstract)
- Silverstein, Ken, Turkmeniscam: How Washington Lobbyists Fought to Flack for a Stalinist Dictatorship, 2008.
- Maitland, Leslie (3 February 1980). "High Officials Are Termed Subjects Of a Bribery Investigation by F.B.I.". The New York Times.
- "Etymology of "Abscam" Undergoes Revision". The New York Times. 21 August 1980.
- Maitland, Leslie (October 31, 1980). "WILLIAMS IS INDICTED WITH 3 FOR BRIBERY IN NEW ABSCAM CASE; JERSEY SENATOR DENIES GUILT Accused of Pledging to Use Office to Obtain Federal Contracts in a Deal for Mine Shares Other Charges in Indictment Jersey's Senator Williams and 3 Are Indicted for Bribery in Abscam Case 2 Representatives Convicted Boast on Casino Alleged A Promise on Immigration". The New York Times.
- Fried, Joseph P. (May 2, 1981). "Williams Is Guilty On All Nine Counts In Abscam Inquiry". The New York Times.
- "CNN.com – Former N.J. Sen. Harrison Williams dead at 81 – November 19, 2001".[dead link]
- Fried, Joseph P. (December 20, 1980). "Williams Seeking the Dismissal of Abscam Charges". The New York Times.
- Weiser, Benjamin. "Bribery – News – Times Topics – The New York Times – Narrowed by 'UNITED STATES POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT'". The New York Times.
- Saxon, Wolfgang (26 August 2005). "Richard Kelly, 81, Congressman Who Went to Prison in Scandal, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 11 December 2013.
- [dead link]
- "Full Abscam Video part 1". YouTube. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- The American Spectator[dead link]
- [dead link]
- "Surveillance video". Mfile.akamai.com. Retrieved 2012-09-28.
- Rabkin, Jeremy (2012-09-17). "The American Spectator". Spectator.org. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- Jackson, Peter (February 9, 2010). "Pa. Dem Murtha remembered as military advocate". The Seattle Times.
- "Pressler, Senator Larry: Biography 2007". Larrypressler.com. 1999-03-12. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- What Wild Ecstasy By John Heidenry Simon & Schuster 2007 ISBN 978-0-7432-4184-7 
- "847 F.2d 1031". Ftp.resource.org. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- "Special Report". Usdoj.gov. Retrieved 2012-09-22.
- "Special Report". Usdoj.gov. Retrieved 2012-09-28.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation – Freedom of Information Privacy Act[dead link]
- Ivan Greenberg, The Dangers of Dissent: The FBI and Civil Liberties Since 1965 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010), p. 106
- Gene A. Plunka (January 1, 2002). The black comedy of John Guare. University of Delaware Press. p. 37. ISBN 978-0-87413-763-7. Retrieved March 3, 2012.
- "First Trailer for David O. Russell's 'American Hustle' Cuts Loose". iamrogue.com. 31 July 2013. Retrieved 1 August 2013.
- PBS – History of Washington Scandals
- The Capital Century – Focuses on Frank Thompson, D-NJ, Abscam details
- Abscam FBI 'Freedom of Information Act' Releases
- Attorney General's Investigative Guidelines, September 2005
- American Spectator article "Murtha and the FBI: Full Director's cut" – September 29, 2006. Has link to watch online the full, unedited 54-minute FBI Abscam/John Murtha video from Jan 7, 1980
- Political Corruption in America, by Mark Grossman