Mar 3, 2014
09:52 AMArts & Entertainment
'American Hustle' Shut Out at Oscars, but Abscam Book It's Based on Still Riveting
Editor's note: The following is a 'Cool Justice' column by contributing editor Andy Thibault.
I prepared for my first viewing of “American Hustle” by reading Bob Greene’s classic, “The Sting Man: Inside Abscam.”
Then I read it again.
It doesn’t get any better than this for someone learning or teaching the crafts of investigative reporting and narrative storytelling.
Greene correctly predicted that the congressional investigation of the FBI’s Abscam tactics would ensure “that no congressman ever again would be nailed with his hand in the cookie jar as the result of such a sting.”
While reporting in great detail on the genesis and execution of Abscam, Greene’s book is just a first step to dig into the layers of politics and intrigue that permeate law enforcement at the highest levels.
Abscam – short for Abdul scam – was conceived to target white collar criminals including forgers and art thieves. When FBI agents got word that a Camden, NJ mayor was ripe for bribes, they went down a road leading to Congress.
The film was shut out at the Oscars despite about 10 nominations. When viewed in the context of Greene’s book, however, “American Hustle” fills in more than a few blanks regarding what we are taught or not taught about the way government works or doesn’t work.
The real-life hustler, Mel Weinberg, put it this way to Greene: “I think we coulda got at least a third of the whole Congress. And look at New Jersey … I never met a straight politician the whole time I was in New Jersey. They must hafta screw ‘em in the ground when they die.”
Indicted on another case, Weinberg had agreed to work with Long Island based FBI agent John Good in exchange for keeping his mistress out of jail. Here’s how Good assessed Weinberg’s role: “Mel Weinberg was the critical factor in the success of Abscam. The viability of any undercover operation depends entirely on its credibility. No undercover FBI agent could have given Abscam the credibility it got from Weinberg. He has been a con man for thirty years; he had been locked up; he has been dealing with organized crime figures his entire life … ”
Weinberg and the FBI created a fictitious company, Abdul Enterprises, as a front to buy stolen goods in 1977. “Just before I got locked up,” Weinberg explained to agents, “I started tellin’ marks that I had a coupla Arab guys with dough to invest. People were bustin’ down my door to give me packages … ”
One hustler led the Abscam team to Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti. Errichetti – directly and via middlemen – connected Abdul Enterprises with numerous New Jersey politicians on the take, more than a few congressmen and even a powerful U.S. Senator. FBI agents posed as Middle Eastern sheiks who had many millions of dollars to invest but needed help with citizenship and various favors. Ultimately, six members of the U.S. House, a U.S. senator, a New Jersey state senator, Erichetti and members of the Philadelphia City Council were among those convicted of providing favors for bribes.