Amy Adams and Christian Bale do the '70s in David O. Russell's "American Hustle." Credit: Francois Duhamel
If you haven’t already seen American Hustle, you should soon: the Golden Globe-winning film is expected to win several Oscars.
Former U.S. Attorney Robert Del Tufo has seen it, too, and his reaction is this, he tells Metro: “Mel Weinberg, even at age 90, has a great ability to make money off people.”
Weinberg was a consultant to “American Hustle” – and like Del Tufo, he was involved in Abscam, the case the movie is loosely based upon.
Weinberg was a fraudster caught by the FBI who, in order to evade a prison sentence, agreed to cooperate with the Bureau.
“When I took over the Long Island office, I told all our agents, ‘get informants or I’ll send you to New York’,” explains John Goode, the FBI agent who led Abscam. “One of our agents had problems finding informants, so I hooked him up with Mel [Weinberg].”
That turned out to be one of the FBI’s most productive partnerships ever.
“The case started when the FBI was beginning to use undercover agents and informants in a more systematic fashion,” explains Dr. John Fox, the FBI’s historian. “The investigations would begin with lower-level criminals, like Mel Weinberg, to get to higher-up ones.”
Weinberg and his FBI partners started by doing "small things, like stolen property," as Goode says. The agent quickly recognized Weinberg’s potential, and Weinberg’s shady dealings led further and further. Along the way, Goode and his team realized that there were plenty of corrupt politicians, not just in New Jersey but in Washington, DC, as well.
“It’s unbelievable that such things were happening,” Goode reflects. “But what’s happening today is a hundred times worse.”
In a nerve-racking act of the highest order, and one more creative than most Hollywood scriptwriters could ever come up with, agents posing as Karim Abdul Rahman, a fictitious sheik, offered the lawmakers cash in return for political favors.
“Mel was a magnificent con artist,” explains Goode. “He had this amazing ability to trick people. He tried to trick us, too, but when he realized that he couldn’t, he really got into the case. It was the first thing he’d ever done on the side of the law.”
The FBI’s plan worked. Of the 31 politicians targeted, seven accepted the bribe and were later convicted for the crime, as were five other government officials.
But, says Robert Del Tufo, the United States Attorney who prosecuted the case, many more officials could have been brought to justice: “The investigation was not well-handled, and Weinberg and [FBI agent] Amoroso were never properly supervised. Weinberg coached the targets on what they should say in front of the [hidden] camera. One of my guys told him to stop doing that, because if you coach somebody on what to say, there will be problems using that as evidence.”
In fact, argues Del Tufo, the con was on the US government: it was let down by Weinberg’s solo maneuvers and left with a case that should have been much stronger. Still, ABSCAM stands out for its audaciousness. And according to John Goode, trying to ensnare crooked lawmakers is far worse than investigating organized crime: “Organized criminals are much more decent than politicians. The politicians attacked us personally, but organized criminals only attacked us on the facts.”
Abscam: Who’s who
Mel Weinberg: fraudster, FBI informant John Goode: FBI agent in charge of team Tony Amoroso: FBI agent posing as fictitious sheikh Robert Del Tufo: Prosecutor
What was it?
A FBI sting operation started in 1978 that investigated in corruption of US officials. The FBI used convicted con Melvin Weinberg to weed out the officials.
How it happened
In order to entrap officials, the FBI formed a fake company called Abdul Enterprises Ltd. as a front for the investigation, and set up videotaped meetings between a fake Arab Sheik named Abdul Rahman (played by an FBI agent) and officials.
The sting operation led to the conviction of a US senator, six members of Congress, and other officials
One government lawyer was reported as saying it was “a scam within a scam,” and violated Justice Department guidelines for undercover operations, including paying Weinberg $150,000 for his role.
In 1982 director Louis Malle was making plans for an Abscam movie called "Moon Over Miami" starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Belushi was to play Mel Weinberg, based on the same man as Bale’s character in "American Hustle". The project was canceled after Belushi died later than year. 2014’s Oscar favorite "American Hustle", starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence, is loosely based on the sting operation.