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Abscam—sometimes written ABSCAM—was a Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting operation run from the Bureau's Hauppauge, Long Island, office in the late 1970s and early '80s. The operation initially targeted trafficking in stolen property but was converted to a public corruption investigation. The FBI, aided by a convicted con-man, videotaped politicians as they were offered bribes by a fictional Middle Eastern sheik in return for various political favors.
The investigation ultimately led to the conviction of a United States Senator, six members of the United States House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and an inspector for the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service.
In March 1978, the FBI created a sting operation called Abscam, initially to investigate theft, forgery and stolen art. The FBI created the fictitious company Abdul Enterprises, Ltd., to serve as a front company and employed Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist and informant, to help plan and conduct the operation. The codename Abscam derived from a combination of "Abdul" and "scam." FBI employees posed as fictional Middle Eastern sheikhs, Kambir Abdul Rahman and Yassir Habib, the owners of Abdul Enterprises who had millions of dollars to invest in the United States.
When a forger who was under investigation suggested to the sheikhs that they invest in casinos in New Jersey, and that licensing could be obtained for a price, the Abscam operation was re-targeted towards political corruption. The first political figure ensnared in the phony investment scheme was Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti. In exchange for monetary kickbacks, Errichetti told the sheikhs' representatives "I'll give you Atlantic City." Errichetti helped to recruit several government officials and United States congressmen who were willing to grant political favors in exchange for monetary bribes. The political favors included streamlined immigration, Political asylum, casino licenses, building permits, money transfers and other investment schemes.
The FBI recorded each of the money exchanges and, for the first time in American history, surreptitiously videotaped government officials accepting bribes. The meeting places included a townhouse in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, DC, which was owned by Lee Lescaze, a yacht in Florida, and hotel rooms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
"Abscam" was the FBI codename for the operation. 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 US senator (Harrison A. Williams (D-NJ)) and six members of the US House of Representatives (John Jenrette (D-SC), Richard Kelly (R-FL), Raymond Lederer (D-PA), Michael "Ozzie" Myers (D-PA), Frank Thompson (D-NJ), and John M. Murphy (D-NY)) 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 in prison for conspiracy charges only. 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. While most of the politicians resigned, Myers was expelled from the House and Williams did not resign until the vote on his expulsion was almost to take place. Five other government officials were convicted, including New Jersey State Senator and Mayor of Camden, NJ Angelo Errichetti; members of the Philadelphia City Council, including Council President George Schwartz, Majority Leader Harry Jannotti, and Councilman Louis Johanson (Defended by John J. Duffy, Jr.); 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 Williams had been a victim of entrapment. The guilty verdict was upheld, and Williams was sentenced to three years in prison.
Because of the convictions, the Senate Ethics Committee voted to censure Senator Williams and put a motion to the floor to expel him for charges of bringing dishonor upon the Senate 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 his resignation speech, Williams proclaimed his innocence and argued that the investigation into his activities was a grievous assault on the rights of the Senate, and that other senators should be wary of unchecked investigations into their activities by other branches of the government.
The July 2012 The New Yorker article, "Words on Trial", states that linguistics expert Roger Shuy is convinced of Senator Williams' innocence. The article states that in a recording of Williams's encounter with an agent disguised as a sheikh, "At one point, the sheikh put the bribe directly to Williams: 'I would like to give you...some money for, for permanent residence.' The first four words of Williams's reply were 'No, no, no, no.'" Further, the article states: "A prosecution memo at the time stated that there was no case against Williams, but the judge, who in his ruling, decried 'the cynicism and hypocrisy of corrupt government officials,' set it aside...After trial, the lead juror confessed that had he known all the facts he would not have found Williams guilty."
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 the 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. Smith won the 1980 election 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.
Angelo Errichetti, mayor of Camden, New Jersey, was charged with arranging for undercover agents to meet with several politicians, who would end up accepting bribes to help use their influence on behalf of individuals posing as Arab investors, with Errichetti taking his share of the bribes. He was convicted on the federal bribery charges, for which he served about three years in prison.
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 Murtha, following a mostly party line vote. The resignation later that day of attorney E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., the panel's special counsel and a Democrat, has been interpreted as an act of protest.
Murtha remained prominent in Congress, and was re-elected by his constituency 19 times over the course of 36 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 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:
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.
French director Louis Malle adapted the Abscam story into a film script titled 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 titled "The Bel-Airabs" (a spoof of The Beverly Hillbillies), February 9, 1980. Fridays parodied the scandal in a skit titled "Abscam Camera" (a spoof of Candid Camera). 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. The film is described as a "fictionalization" rather than a straight adaptation. The opening screen states, "Some of this actually happened."