FBI undercover 'stings': Catching politicians red-handed

Calling public corruption its 'number one criminal priority,' the bureau's tactics are sometimes controversial

A video still released by the FBI in 1980 shows Rep. Richard Kelly as he was filmed by the FBI in the course of its ABSCAM investigation.

An all-expense-paid trip to Napa Valley; a wad of cash, carefully counted out, laid on a desk, and tucked into a suit pocket; a suitcase filled with money picked up at an airport hotel. These are just a few ways bribe money has been handled by politicians in which political favors are peddled for hard cash. But in each instance, undercover FBI agents have supplied the money and the recipients — all public officials — have been caught in carefully orchestrated “sting” operations.

In political corruption cases, undercover sting operations are a tried-and-true tactic of the FBI. In the latest case, a sealed FBI affidavit details how a powerful California state senator, Ronald Calderon, tumbled to an FBI sting — agents convinced him they were running a Hollywood movie studio. They sought his legislative help and, in return, made nearly $60,000 in payments to Calderon, according to the affidavit.

Click for more on The Calderon Dynasty

Calderon has plenty of company. Each year, across the country, the FBI targets hundreds of public officials, from sheriffs to mayors, judges, state legislators and members of Congress in public corruption investigations. Many involve fictitious business enterprises and undercover operatives posing as businessmen who set out to ensnare public officials in illegal deals. Battling public corruption, the FBI says, is its “number one criminal priority.”

In 1981, after the controversial Abscam sting galvanized critics, the then-U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti established formal guidelines governing undercover operations. Those rules have evolved over the years, and the FBI now operates under guidelines established in 2011 by Attorney General Eric Holder.

For undercover stings involving public officials, the FBI says it follows a strict approval and reporting structure. An FBI undercover review committee must approve operations targeting elected officials, political groups, clergy and journalists. Agents working a case must provide regular updates to the committee, according to the bureau. These so-called “sensitive investigative matters” also require review by senior FBI and Justice Department officials in Washington.

Many of these rules were implemented in the wake of Abscam, one of the best- known and most controversial of all FBI stings. The success of that operation ushered in a new era in which public corruption probes became more and more prevalent.      

Herewith, a sampling of a few prominent stings:

1981- ABSCAM

A video still released by the FBI in 1980 shows Rep. Richard Kelly as he was filmed by the FBI in the course of its ABSCAM investigation.

Code named Abscam after a fake company called Abdul Enterprises Inc., the elaborate hoax involved the assistance of a convicted confidence man, fake Arab sheiks, payoffs to members of Congress and promises of hefty U.S. investment in exchange for immigration assistance. Ultimately, the operation led to the conviction of a U.S. senator, six members of the House of Representatives, a New Jersey mayor, Philadelphia City Council members, and a U.S. Immigration official.

Critics chastised the FBI for using a convict and for allegedly entrapping political figures.


A hidden FBI camera shows State Sen. Joseph Montoya, center, accepting a check from FBI agent George Murray, left, as Senate aide John Shahabian, right, looks on, 1988.

The last major undercover FBI investigation to shake the California political scene happened 25 years ago. Dubbed “Shrimpscam,” after a fake shrimp-processing company established by the FBI, the eight-year investigation led to the conviction of more than a dozen officials, including three state legislators, in a scheme to accept bribes in exchange for passing special-interest legislation. Remarkably, two of the bills passed the state Assembly, but were vetoed by then-Gov. George Deukmejian after the FBI advised him of the sting. As part of the operation, the FBI relied on a former Capitol aide as an undercover informant. The staffer wore a wire for two years for the FBI and posed as an owner of one the businesses involved.


An FBI video still shows former state Sen. Roscoe Dixon, center, in his Memphis, Tenn. office as an FBI informant Tim Willis, right, passes money to Barry Myers, 2003.

The sting operation dubbed “Tennessee Waltz” led to the convictions of a dozen state and local public officials, including several state legislators. The FBI set up an electronics-recycling company called “E-Cycle Management Inc.,” and worked with a prominent lobbyist-turned-informant to offer bribes to public officials in exchange for exclusive contracts and legislation. The FBI says it paid out around $150,000 in bribes to the politicians in the undercover operation.


An FBI hidden camera captures former Ohio state rep. W. Carlton Weddington accepting cash during an undercover FBI operation in 2011.

W. Carlton Weddington, an Ohio state representative, was sentenced to three years in prison on bribery and ethics charges after he was ensnared in an FBI sting. Weddington accepted all-expense-paid trips to Miami and California and campaign donations and cash as part of the operation. In return, he championed legislation beneficial to an FBI front company, according to the indictment in the case.

Katie Lannigan is a member of the Al Jazeera Investigative Unit.

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