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Abscam

 

By Kathy Pillatzki
Assistant Director
Henry County Library System

  Raise your hand if you remember Abscam. Anyone? It’s interesting how some scandals pass out of public consciousness quickly while others linger, but a new generation of Americans is about to get a refresher course on Abscam. A new film, American Hustle, is set to hit the big screen on December 20. So far critics and viewers at pre-release screenings have loved it. It’s getting a lot of early Oscar buzz over performances by Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, and Bradley Cooper.

  You may have seen the previews, and they are intriguing, but the most notable thing about the advertising is that it gives few clues to the film’s subject. It’s advertised as a fictionalization, but it is actually based on a nonfiction book, The Sting Man: Inside Abscam by investigative reporter Robert W. Greene.

  Abscam, a contraction of “Arab scam” or “Abdul scam” (depending on who’s telling the story), was a sting operation launched by the FBI in 1978 to ferret out corruption among members of the United States Congress. There were later accusations that the investigation was really a retaliatory move after Congress investigated the FBI over charges of brutality and other abuses of power.

  Regardless, the FBI set up a fake business, Abdul Enterprises Ltd., as a front for the operation. An FBI agent posed as Karim Abdul Rahman, a fictitious Middle Eastern sheik who offered bribes to various elected officials in exchange for political favors, including asylum in the US, participation in investment schemes, and help transferring money out of his country.

  Over a period of several years, the “sheik” made his proposals to members of Congress in hotels rooms, private homes and yachts, all of which were recorded by hidden audio and video equipment. The story broke in 1980, when NBC Nightly News became the first media outlet to report the sting operation. The results: of the 31 targeted officials, one US Senator, six US Representatives, a New Jersey state senator, an agent of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and several members of the Philadelphia City Council were indicted and convicted on charges of bribery and corruption. Some fought back, accusing the FBI of entrapment, but ultimately all of the convictions were upheld on appeal.

  One notable exception among targeted officials was Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who flatly rejected the bribe offer and immediately reported the incident to the FBI. When he was later referred to as a hero by newsman Walter Cronkite, he replied in part, “…what have we come to if turning down a bribe is “heroic?”

  While Abscam has been overshadowed by newer scandals for newer generations, its influence is still felt in American law and culture. To put it in perspective, only ten US Congressmen had ever been convicted of accepting bribes prior to 1970. Abscam resulted in the conviction of seven, plus state and local officials. The scope and success of the operation was unprecedented, but not without its critics. In response to charges of entrapment, US Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti issued the first federal guidelines for the conduct of sting operations. The Civiletti Guidelines were updated by subsequent administrations, most recently the 2001 Reno Guidelines.

  In anticipation of renewed interest in Abscam, all Henry County libraries have new copies of Greene’s book The Sting Man. Check with your branch for availability.

 

 

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