Abscam Affair Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An undercover probe led to the conviction of seven members of Congress on bribery-related charges. The scandal spurred public cynicism toward elected officials as well as toward the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which came under criticism for possibly inducing criminal activity.

Summary of Event

In February, 1980, the American public was shocked to learn that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had conducted a probe that allegedly had uncovered serious violations of the law by at least seven members of Congress and other politicians. During the probe, undercover agents had posed as Arab men operating a business called Abdul Enterprises. These agents met with members of Congress and local officials and offered them cash or other bribes in exchange for political favors. As hidden video cameras were filming the transactions, several congressmen cheerfully accepted bribes while promising to help Abdul Enterprises and to introduce legislation to help one of the corporate officers achieve permanent residency in the United States. Abscam Federal Bureau of Investigation;Abscam U.S. Congress;Abscam [kw]Abscam Affair (Feb., 1980-Mar. 11, 1982) Abscam Federal Bureau of Investigation;Abscam U.S. Congress;Abscam [g]North America;Feb., 1980-Mar. 11, 1982: Abscam Affair[04050] [g]United States;Feb., 1980-Mar. 11, 1982: Abscam Affair[04050] [c]Government and politics;Feb., 1980-Mar. 11, 1982: Abscam Affair[04050] [c]Crime and scandal;Feb., 1980-Mar. 11, 1982: Abscam Affair[04050] Jenrette, John W., Jr. Kelly, Richard Lederer, Raymond F. Murphy, John M. Murtha, John P. Myers, Michael Pressler, Larry Thompson, Frank, Jr. Williams, Harrison A., Jr.

The first trial resulting from the FBI operation, which was known as Abscam, took place before a jury in Brooklyn, New York, in August of 1980. The defendants included Representative Michael Myers of Pennsylvania, a mayor, a city council member, and an attorney. Congressman Myers admitted to taking the cash gift but said the payment did not constitute bribery, because he never intended to make good his promise to help the supposed Arab business executives. The jury, however, was impressed by video footage showing Myers accepting fifty thousand dollars in cash, then coming back later and asking for more. After ten hours of deliberation, the jury returned a guilty verdict. The House of Representatives moved quickly to expel Myers. By a vote of 376 to 30, Myers became the first member of Congress to be expelled since 1861, and the only one to be expelled for a cause other than treason.

Subsequent Abscam trials added to the public’s growing revulsion toward dishonesty in government. At the trial of Congressman John W. Jenrette, Jr., a videotape showed Jenrette discussing a bribe, then joking that he had larceny in his blood. His defense attorneys stressed that Jenrette had drinking problems. Jenrette was convicted, but he insisted on continuing his bid for reelection. His South Carolina constituents repudiated him at the polls, and Jenrette resigned before his term’s end to prevent formal expulsion by the House of Representatives.

Public cynicism reached a new height with the trial of Congressman Richard Kelly of Florida. Kelly admitted to receiving twenty-five thousand dollars from undercover agents, but he claimed that he had done so to enable him to conduct his own investigation. When incredulous reporters asked why he had never reported the incidents to law-enforcement officers, Kelly replied that he had not wanted to blow his cover. Images of Kelly gleefully stuffing currency into his pockets stayed in the jury’s minds, however, and Kelly was convicted. Kelly’s reelection bid was halted by his defeat in the Republican primary before his conviction.

Three other members of the House of Representatives also were convicted in Abscam cases: Raymond F. Lederer of Pennsylvania and Frank Thompson, Jr., of New Jersey, and John M. Murphy of New York. Thompson and Murphy went down to defeat at the polls as their cases were moving to trial. Lederer was reelected, but he resigned to prevent his expulsion.

The case of the only U.S. senator caught up in the Abscam scandal moved forward slowly. Senator Harrison A. Williams, Jr., unlike the members of the House of Representatives, was fortunate in that he was not up for reelection in 1980. Williams’s case was more complex than that of the other defendants, because he did not receive cash in exchange for his promises to help a supposed sheik to secure permanent residency status. Instead, Williams received what were purported to be shares of stock, as well as a favorable business loan from the corporation represented by the stock shares. Williams defended himself by saying that he had believed the shares of stock to be worthless, while he believed the loan was a legitimate loan and not a bribe. The senator was convicted, however; after a number of delays, he resigned on March 11, 1982, hours before the Senate was expected to expel him. If he had been expelled, Williams would have been the first senator ousted since the Civil War.

Significance

There were few bright spots in the Abscam story. One member of the House, John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, did meet with the FBI undercover agents and did discuss bribes and favors, but he stopped short of accepting a bribe. The only hero in the story appeared to be Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota. Pressler was captured on videotape telling the agents posing as Arab business executives that the steps they were suggesting were wrong and illegal. Pressler finally left the meeting in disgust. Still, the fact remained that seven members of Congress had been convicted, fined, and sent to jail. All were either defeated by their constituents, resigned under pressure, or (in the case of Myers) expelled.

The six House members and one senator who were convicted had few supporters. The FBI also came under criticism, and few embraced this sting operation unreservedly. Many feared that in the Abscam probe the FBI had induced crimes, rather than working to prevent crime. Did Abscam fall under the legal definition of “entrapment”? Criminal defendants may win acquittal if they can prove that they had no previous disposition to violate the law but were pressured into such violations by the urging of law officers. Various appeals courts ruled repeatedly that Abscam did not constitute entrapment, however.

Other critics feared that this kind of operation could be used to punish members of one particular political party or faction. At least one Abscam defendant claimed his prosecution was motivated by the desire of officials in President Jimmy Carter’s administration to punish him for supporting Ted Kennedy’s bid for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination. Arab Americans complained that Abscam was founded on American stereotypes about Arab culture and that the scandal made those stereotypes worse.

Images of members of Congress stuffing their pockets with cash, joking all the while, soured citizens’ image of the federal government at a time when it was still tarnished from the Watergate scandal and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon only six years earlier. The public’s perception of Congress was darkened even further by a number of unrelated charges, indictments, and convictions at the same time the Abscam cases were moving forward. The charges against various members of the House of Representatives included financial irregularities, accepting illegal gifts, pocketing parts of employees’ salaries, buying votes, drug possession, and various sex-related crimes. Coupled with scandals that took place within Ronald Reagan’s presidential administration shortly after Abscam, the net effect of Abscam and the other congressional scandals was to lower the American public’s opinion of elected officials. Abscam Federal Bureau of Investigation;Abscam U.S. Congress;Abscam

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berman, Jerry J. The Lessons of Abscam. Washington, D.C.: American Civil Liberties Union, 1982. Takes a critical look at Abscam and the potential use of similar sting tactics to suppress civil liberties.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caplan, Gerald M., ed. Abscam Ethics: Moral Issues and Deception in Law Enforcement. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1983. The authors of seven essays use Abscam as the starting point for their analyses of the ethical issues of entrapment, enticement, and deception by law officers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">

    Congressional Quarterly Almanac. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, 1980-1983. This annual reference book is one of the best sources of detailed information available about the Abscam cases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Robert W. The Sting Man: Inside Abscam. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981. A first-person account by a key participant in the Abscam cases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Shaheen, Jack G. Abscam: Arabiaphobia in America. Washington, D.C.: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, 1980. Criticizes the Justice Department for using U.S. stereotypes of Arab culture as a tool in the Abscam cases.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Senate. Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Law Enforcement Undercover Activities of Components of the Department of Justice to the U.S. Senate. 97th Congress, 2d session. Senate Report 97-682. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1981. A basic compendium of primary sources. Contains analysis of ethical issues raised by the Abscam prosecutions.

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