December is primetime for new movies at the box office. One particular film, “American Hustle” directed by David O. Russell and starring Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper will be of particular interest to anyone fascinated by political scandals. The flim is about a conman and his stripper girlfriend who get involved with a sting operation between the FBI and the Mafia, which is loosely based on the ABSCAM scandal that rocked Washington in the 1980’s. While this movie is high on drama, the real life story may just be stranger than fiction.
In 1978 the FBI launched a major investigation into federal corruption. In an effort to weasel out the less than ethical politicians working in Washington, the FBI hired convicted con artist Melvin Weinberg, named Irving Rosenfeld and played by Christian Bale in the film, to come up with the ultimate scam.
The FBI launched a fake corporation called Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. to serve as a front for the investigation, with a number of agents posing as Karim Abdul Rahman, the fictional sheik who owned the company. The agents then held a series of meetings with prominent Senators and Representatives at a Georgetown townhouse located at the 4400 block of W Street. The FBI rented the home from Lee Lescaze, a Washington Post editor. During the filmed meetings, the agent posing as Rahman would offer the politicians money in exchange for political asylum and help in illegally transferring money.
Of the 31 members of Congress targeted by ABSCAM, one Senator and six Representatives were convicted of bribery and conspiracy in 1981. Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey received three years in federal prison for agreeing on tape to take a share of stock in the FBI’s fake company and to use his position in the Senate to steer contracts to the company. He was the first U.S. Senator to be imprisoned in over 80 years. Representatives John Jenrette of South Carolina, Richard Kelly of Florida, Raymond Lederer of Pennsylvania, Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, Frank Thompson of New Jersey and John Murphy of New York were also all found guilty and each served less than three years in jail.
Following the ABSCAM scandal, Congress held a number of hearings into the tactics used in FBI sting operations. There was a great deal of criticism of the agency’s choice to hire a known con artist to set up the parameters of the operation, as well as questions regarding whether or not the set up of the scam could have been considered entrapment. Afterwards the Justice Department issued a number of guidelines for the FBI regarding undercover operations.
While the film “American Hustle” takes some dramatic liberties in the retelling of the ABSCAM affair, Washington should remember that the story being told isn’t just a Hollywood fairytale. Politicians are not infallible, and as these events from 30 years ago remind us, can be just as unethical as a con artist.
To the disgraced former Representative Michael Myers, bribing politicians is “ probably more true today than it was then.” According to the Washington Post, Myers “served 21 months in prison for taking a $50,000 bribe. He considers the operation a waste of money that destroyed “legitimate, honest people.””