Media Uncover FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

In 1978, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began a sting operation to investigate organized crime and the trafficking of stolen property. The agency set up a fictitious company, Abdul Enterprises Ltd., as a cover and staffed it with federal agents posing as wealthy Arab businessmen. In 1979, the focus of the operation shifted to the investigation of corrupt U.S. politicians taking money for political favors. A number of legislators were caught in the sting, but the scandal led to accusations against the FBI for its investigative techniques and for possible entrapment. The media also were criticized for reporting on the operation before anyone had been criminally indicted.

Summary of Event

In 1978, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) authorized a request by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to set up a sting operation, code-named Abscam (for Abdul scam), to investigate organized crime and the trafficking of stolen property. The FBI hired Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist, to manage the operation from the FBI office in Hauppauge, Long Island. In return for his services, the FBI purportedly paid him $150,000 and voided his three-year prison sentence. [kw]FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers, Media Uncover (Feb. 2, 1980) Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Abscam[Abscam] Abscam Errichetti, Angelo Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Abscam[Abscam] Abscam Errichetti, Angelo [g]United States;Feb. 2, 1980: Media Uncover FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers[01850] [c]Corruption;Feb. 2, 1980: Media Uncover FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers[01850] [c]Government;Feb. 2, 1980: Media Uncover FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers[01850] [c]Law and the courts;Feb. 2, 1980: Media Uncover FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers[01850] [c]Organized crime and racketeering;Feb. 2, 1980: Media Uncover FBI Sting Implicating Dozens of Lawmakers[01850] Weinberg, Melvin Williams, Harrison A. Jenrette, John W., Jr. Kelly, Richard Lederer, Raymond Myers, Michael Thompson, Frank

A videotape from a television screen showing Representative Michael Myers, second from left, holding an envelope containing $50,000, which he just accepted from an undercover FBI agent in the Abscam sting operation.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The FBI then set the stage for the sting by setting up a fictitious company, Abdul Enterprises Ltd., as a cover. The business was staffed by undercover agents posing as wealthy Arab businessmen. In the spring of 1979, the focus of the operation shifted to the investigation of government corruption on local, state, and federal levels. This decision was based on a promise made by New Jersey state senator and Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti that he could provide undercover agents with a list of politicians who were willing to provide the services of the federal government in return for cash. These services included granting asylum in the United States, Money laundering;and Abscam[Abscam] money laundering, obtaining gambling licenses, and investment schemes.

As part of the operation, an undercover agent called Sheikh Rahman, Kambir Abdul Kambir Abdul Rahman arranged meetings with thirty-one politicians named by Errichetti. The meetings, which were secretly Video evidence videotaped by the FBI, took place in several different locations, including a property in Washington, D.C., a yacht in Florida, and hotel rooms in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

On Saturday, February 2, 1980, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) broke the story of the FBI’s Abscam investigation during its evening news segment. New York Times;and Abscam[Abscam] The New York Times and other media outlets reported on the operation the following day. Within a day, the FBI investigation into political corruption turned into a major scandal. In total, six federal lawmakers, three city-level officials, one federal employee, and one state senator-city mayor were convicted on felony bribery and conspiracy charges for their role in the illegal activities. On October 30, the DOJ indicted U.S. senator Harrison A. Williams for bribery Bribery;Harrison A. Williams[Williams] and conspiracy. He was convicted on May 1, 1981, received a three-year prison sentence, and finally resigned from the Senate on March 11, 1982. He was the only U.S. senator implicated and was the first senator to be imprisoned in almost eighty years.

Five U.S. representatives also were convicted for bribery Bribery;Congress members and conspiracy in connection with the sting operation. These Congress members included Jenrette, John W., Jr. John W. Jenrette, Jr., who was tape-recorded telling a colleague that he had been given fifty thousand dollars in exchange for special favors. He received a two-year prison sentence and resigned on December 10, 1980. Richard Kelly Kelly, Richard accepted a bribe of twenty-five thousand dollars from federal agents during the sting operation. He was convicted for bribery and served thirteen months in prison. Raymond Lederer Lederer, Raymond was convicted for bribery and sentenced to three years in prison. Michael Myers Myers, Michael was Video evidence videotaped accepting a fifty-thousand-dollar bribe by undercover agents on August 2, 1979. He was convicted for bribery and sentenced to three years in prison. On October 2, 1980, he was expelled from the House, making him the first Congress member to be expelled since 1861. Frank Thompson Thompson, Frank also was convicted for bribery and conspiracy. He received a three-year prison sentence and resigned from the House on December 29, 1980.

Five other government officials were convicted of bribery and conspiracy. These included Errichetti, three Philadelphia City Council members, and a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Immigration fraud Immigration and Naturalization Service inspector. It is important to note that on appeal, all of the aforementioned convictions were upheld.

Other notable politicians associated with Abscam include U.S. senator Larry Pressler Pressler, Larry from South Dakota and Representative John Murtha Murtha, John of Pennsylvania. When approached by undercover agents, Pressler simply refused to take the bribe and then reported the incident to the FBI. Murtha, on the other hand, expressed an interest in the fifty-thousand-dollar bribe because he wanted to use the money to improve the local economy in his congressional district. Because of these extenuating circumstances, Murtha was never indicted on bribery charges.

Impact

The Abscam scandal had far-reaching consequences, mostly negative. The operation was much maligned by government critics who accused the FBI of entrapping those thought to be involved in the affair. Entrapment is a significant accusation, given that criminal defendants could 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 enforcement officers. However, in the case of Abscam, various appeals courts ruled repeatedly that the operation did not constitute entrapment. Critics also questioned the hiring of a convicted felon to manage the investigation.

In response to these accusations, on January 5, 1981, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti issued specific guidelines, the Attorney General Guidelines on FBI Undercover Operations, a complete set of guiding standards to direct the FBI in the best way to conduct undercover investigations. Established to protect civil liberties, the guidelines, the first of their kind in U.S. law enforcement, are updated periodically in response to changing types of crime and evolving approaches to law enforcement.

The Senate also held its own probe into the operation and the FBI’s investigative techniques. In December, 1982, the Senate’s final report supported the FBI but also cautioned the public that the kind of techniques it used in the Abscam affair might infringe on a person’s right to privacy.

For Americans who were already disenchanted with government because of the Watergate scandal and U.S. president Richard Nixon’s resignation, Abscam led to further disappointment and disgust. Although criminals were brought to justice because of the operation, the case had the ultimate effect of making Americans even more distrustful of their elected officials. Voters began to critically question the integrity of their representatives. Conversely, and more positively, the scandal also exemplified how well the U.S. system of government worked. The politicians who broke the law were charged, convicted, sentenced, imprisoned, removed from office, and publicly shamed, thus showing that no person, even a government official or one elected, is above the law. Federal Bureau of Investigation;and Abscam[Abscam] Abscam Errichetti, Angelo

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Caplan, Gerald M., ed. ABSCAM Ethics: Moral Issues and Deception in Law Enforcement. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, 1983. A compilation of seven essays that examine the moral issues that surround undercover operations by law enforcement agencies. Uses the Abscam affair as a starting point for discussion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Robert W. The Sting Man: Inside Abscam. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1981. Based on more than two hundred interviews with Melvin Weinberg, this book provides readers with the inside story of the Abscam sting operation through Weinberg’s eyes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roberts, Robert North. Ethics in U.S. Government: An Encyclopedia of Investigations, Scandals, Reforms, and Legislation. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001. A comprehensive encyclopedia documenting political scandals, ethical controversies, and investigations in the United States between 1775 and 2000. Includes discussion of Abscam.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Tolchin, Susan J., and Martin Tolchin. Glass Houses: Congressional Ethics and the Politics of Venom. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001. This book examines the ethical pressures routinely confronted by politicians and how politicians handle those pressures. Several case studies are reviewed, including Abscam.
  • 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.: Government Printing Office, 1981. Contains analysis of ethical issues raised by the Abscam prosecutions. A basic, but important, compendium of primary sources.

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