The real-life FBI sting behind 'American Hustle'
David O. Russell's film is based on Abscam, the Congressional corruption probe that changed the way the FBI operates
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David O. Russell's film is based on Abscam, the Congressional corruption probe that changed the way the FBI operates
John Good stood inside a large airport hangar and watched as an Arab sheik in flowing white silk glided down the stairs of his private jet to the tarmac. Waiting for him was a con man, an undercover FBI agent and the mayor of Camden, N.J. After they shook hands and stepped into waiting limos, a voice off to the side yelled, "Cut! Let's do it again."
The actor playing the sheik walked back up the stairs and into the plane while the men below — the actors Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper and Jeremy Renner — retreated to the shadows. The scene, for the upcoming film "American Hustle," would be shot more than a dozen times.
"What do you think?" said the director, David O. Russell, who stood next to Good during the filming.
"I guess it looked OK," said the former FBI agent. "But I can't say that ever really happened in Abscam."
It's been more than 30 years since Good headed the FBI's most extensive political-corruption probe. And on this cold day in Boston he watched as Hollywood was finally taking its shot at re-telling the story of the infamous investigation.
Dubbed Abscam after the name of the phony business set up by the FBI, Abdul Enterprises, the sting operation ensnared 19 people, including one U.S. senator, six members of the House of Representatives, assorted state officials from New Jersey, members of the Philadelphia City Council and several attorneys.
Abscam's claim to fame was its use of a real-life con man, Mel Weinberg. During the operation's two-year run from 1978 to 1980, Good and his team secretly recorded hundreds of hours of video of Weinberg (the basis for Bale's character) and undercover FBI agent Tony Amoroso (the basis for Cooper's character) securing bribes and playing their roles of employees of the Arab sheik to perfection. "American Hustle," set for a Dec. 16 release, is loosely based on the exploits of the charismatic Weinberg.
Both Good, 78, who lives in Long Island, N.Y. and runs a private investigative firm, and Amoroso, 72, retired and living in Florida, consulted on the film. They agree that Weinberg was instrumental in Abscam's success — but say there was much more to the story than what Weinberg did or what was seen on the FBI tapes.
No one, they say, was prepared for Abscam. Not Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice nor the FBI. Abscam was a fumble, a mistake, an investigation that was born not from a grand plan to fight Congressional corruption but one that had a relatively modest target: white-collar crime on Long Island. As the probe widened, it exposed a split within the FBI over the use of a convicted criminal — Weinberg — and ultimately led to new guidelines that all but guaranteed a similar investigation of Abscam's scale would never happen again.
It was 1977 when Good, then 43, was persuaded to leave his desk job as a supervisor in New York City to become senior resident agent of the FBI’s sleepy bureau in Babylon, N.Y. The "request" was simple: See if you can develop any major cases in an office that had historically spent its time chasing down draft dodgers and men who had gone AWOL during the Vietnam War.
A veteran agent from the Bronx with a stellar 18-year record, Good had FBI blood in his veins: His father was a longtime agent in Manhattan. Once in place in Long Island, Good’s first orders were for the dozen or so agents to develop new sources and intelligence to start-up new investigations. Drugs, financial fraud, truck hijackings — Good didn't care, so long as it didn't involve another draft dodger. The agents seized upon the challenge, with one exception, Jack McCarthy, a hard worker who had difficulty developing sources.
"Jack was talented in a lot of areas," said Good. "But not on the street."
So Good took it upon himself to find McCarthy an informant. To the new bureau chief’s surprise, he found one residing in a jail in Pittsburgh.
Melvin Weinberg was a cigar-chomping hustler from Long Island whose swindles financed an opulent lifestyle and supported a wife, Marie; an adopted son; and a girlfriend. He had become an informant following a 1969 arrest on conspiracy charges. But he was back to his old tricks and facing 20 years in prison for running a fake investment firm when he eagerly accepted Good’s offer to drop the charges if he’d again work for the FBI.
The pairing produced almost-instantaneous results, including a case involving stolen certificates of deposit from Chemical Bank. Good was so ecstatic he requested and received a $30,000 budget to expand their efforts. Weinberg took his role as a government cooperator seriously and, following an initial run of success, floated the idea to open a bogus business run by a phony Arab sheik with plenty of cash to spend on just about anything. "Mel said, 'Let's have them come to us,'" Good recalled.
Weinberg then spread the word about the sheik and his firm, Abdul Enterprises.
Abscam was born.
New Jersey had just approved gambling for Atlantic City, and Weinberg sent out word that they were looking to pay bribes to anyone who could help win a casino license. Suddenly, the phone at Abdul Enterprises' office, in Hauppauge, N.Y, was ringing nonstop, and it wasn't the usual flotsam of hardcore swindlers who were calling. In December 1978, Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden, introduced himself. (In "American Hustle," the Errichetti-like character is played by Renner.)
Charming to a fault, Errichetti said he was seeking a gaming license with a group of partners and needed $400,000 of the sheik’s money. (Three different FBI agents would portray the sheik during Abscam). The money, Errichetti said, would be used to bribe politicians and New Jersey state officials to ensure the success of the casino application. Soon after, he received $25,000 to pass along to a gaming official.
Amoroso, a New Yorker from the Bronx who was working stolen goods cases in Miami, joined the investigation not long after. Weinberg and Amoroso hit it off immediately.
Soon, Sen. Harrison Williams of New Jersey was in their sights after he promised, among other things, to help the sheik gain permanent residence in the U.S. No member of the United States Senate had been convicted of a crime since World War I, a fact that wasn’t lost on Good.
Weinberg recommended holding a party and introducing Williams, Errichetti and others to the sheik. Amoroso suggested using a yacht the U.S. Customs Service found floating crewless in the Caribbean Sea, loaded with four tons of marijuana. In July 1979 the yacht, wired with surveillance cameras, sailed through Biscayne Harbor, at the southern tip of Florida, filled with politicians and lawyers, plus Weinberg, Amoroso and the "sheik." (The same boat was later used in the FBI's so-called Donne Brasco Mafia investigation, which was also headed by Good.) They all took pictures with the sheik (at that time, FBI agent Richard Farhart, who was of Lebanese descent) and talked up deals.
Francis 'Bud' Mullen
former FBI assisant director
On Aug. 8, FBI surveillance tapes showing the yacht party and prior clandestine payoffs were played for senior bureau officials, including then Director William Webster and his assistant director, Francis "Bud" Mullen.
Mullen, long retired and living in Virginia, praises the investigation and says he thought it was "ingenious" to enlist Weinberg. But he says Webster, knowing the probe would entangle Congress, was uncomfortable with what the bureau was getting itself into. Even so, he allowed the agents to continue their probe. After watching the video tapes of politicians stuffing their pockets with cash, FBI officials were shocked.
"This wasn't the way the government was supposed to work," says Mullen. "I didn't realize it was this bad. Sometimes when you catch a murderer, for example, you are elated. This was different. I wished it wasn’t happening. There were tears in the room."
In addition to politicians, the investigation was about to target one of the most notorious figures in mob history: Meyer Lansky.
Lansky's representatives sought substantial funds from Abdul Enterprises to buy real estate in Miami and interests in planned Atlantic City casinos, which would have given him full control of the burgeoning gambling mecca. But Good's supervisors in Washington, D.C., pulled the Abscam agents off the Lansky trail in order to focus on politicians. There was also a deepening turf battle with the U.S. attorney's office in New Jersey that demanded their full attention. According to a confidential FBI report prepared for Webster for his testimony before a House Judiciary subcommittee in 1982, New Jersey's U.S. attorney, Robert Del Tufo and his office had been "embarrassed" by the "cesspool of corruption" uncovered in their own backyard and tried to derail the Abscam probe, even refusing to convene a grand jury for several participants, including Errichetti. Del Tufo was also believed to be tipping off political targets in New Jersey, including Williams. Del Tufo, who would later become state attorney general in 1989 under Governor James Florio (another Abscam target, though never charged), has maintained that Abscam was a rogue investigation that went way beyond the boundaries of Justice Department guidelines.
Francis 'Bud' Mullen
former FBI assistant director
By the end of 1979, the FBI was ready to call it quits on Abscam. Good and his team, which at times included some 50 agents, had promised tens of thousands in bribes they knew they couldn't deliver. Thomas Puccio, the mercurial but brilliant U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, who headed the strike force overseeing Abscam, had drawn up his official report identifying the members of Congress who would be charged and their alleged crimes.
Two months later, with Puccio's "prosecution memo" circulating among a small group within the FBI, Good says he received a call from Neil Welch, head of the Manhattan office. Welch had an odd request, according to Good: He wanted to leak the investigation to the press.
"He wanted me to do an interview with a 'New York Times' reporter," said Good. "I couldn't believe it. I gave (Puccio's) memo to him out of courtesy, but now he wants to give it to the press so he could take credit for the whole thing. I told him to put the request in writing."
Welch ignored his instructions and sent the reporter, Leslie Maitland, to Brooklyn to see Puccio, who Good says threw Maitland out of his office.
"The next thing we know, it's all on the front page of 'The New York Times,'" Good remembers.
The FBI conducted a massive internal investigation. The leaker was never identified, though Welch refused to take a polygraph test and resigned soon after, according to Good. Welch declined to comment for this story.
By September 1980, with the investigation out in the open, the charges filed and the first trial, involving Democratic Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers of Pennsylvania and Errichetti, about to begin, the three television networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — successfully petitioned a federal court judge to mandate the release of the videotapes. Initially, public sentiment was overwhelmingly in favor of the FBI's actions.
But Congress was seething.
"I was new in Washington, not part of the political process," says Mullen. "I naively thought Congress wanted to get rid of the bad apples. Boy, was I wrong. I thought we were doing a good thing here, but it turned out Congress didn’t agree with that. They were angry."
The Senate and House both held hearings amid a growing national debate over whether it was appropriate for the FBI to rely on a convicted swindler. Things got even dicier when Weinberg’s wife, Marie, committed suicide after alleging on national television that her husband had extorted gifts and money from some of the investigation’s middlemen. "None of that was true," says Good. "We had a very tight squeeze on Mel and knew everything he was doing."
But public sentiment began to change amid assertions that the FBI had used Weinberg to entrap politicians. Congress took out its anger on senior FBI officials. When Mullen was nominated to be director of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in 1981, his confirmation hearings turned into an raucous debate over Abscam that lasted some 19 months. Webster, a brilliant attorney long considered a candidate for appointment to the Supreme Court, would never receive a nomination. Good and Amoroso did not go unscathed either. After testifying before Congress and in the Abscam trials, both men sought transfers overseas — Good to London and Amoroso to Rome.
"They were open positions, no one wanted them, but we were denied," says Good.
government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen
While prosecutors won 19 Abscam convictions, Congress sought assurances that a similar investigation would never happen again. Then-U.S. Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti approved new guidelines in 1981 that governed "sensitive" undercover investigations involving politicians. Over the last three decades, those changes have had a significant effect. Agents now must slice through several internal barriers before gaining the approval of an FBI review committee just to begin an investigation of an elected official. While the rules have not stopped individual prosecutions of state and federal officials, they've all but prohibited the kind of mass-investigation seen in Abscam.
"The Department of Justice is hamstrung," says Craig Holman, government-affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C-based public-watchdog group. According to Holman, lobbyists are now at the core of a political climate in which more money changes hands than ever before. "Money plays a much bigger and more important role in Congress than in those days. It's become so egregiously escalated since Abscam that we are ripe for another scandal."
A few weeks after leaving the set in Boston, Good and Amoroso, were in New York for the final shoots of "American Hustle" at the Plaza hotel and the Waldorf Astoria. Weinberg, nearing 90 and living in Florida, has been in poor health and was unable to participate. "All this time," said Good, "I never thought we’d be talking about Abscam again."