By Patrick Mondout
On February 3, 1980, the Philadelphia Inquirer and other newspapers
revealed details about a secret two-year FBI sting operation code-named
"Abscam." By 1984, four members of the U.S. House of
Representatives and one U.S. Senator had been convicted of bribery and
conspiracy charges. It was the biggest scandal to hit Washington since
Watergate though it is largely forgotten today. Why is that? Because
neither party has an incentive to bring it up.
What was Abscam?
The name "Abscam" is derived from the fictitious company the
FBI set up - Abdul Enterprises - to lure various public officials
into accepting bribes.
On September 19, 1978, the FBI - via another fictitious company named
"Olympic Construction Corp." - rented a house in Washington D.C.
from, ironically enough, a Washington Post reporter named Lee Lescaze.
According to an article Lescaze wrote in 1997 for the Post, "the FBI
knew that I was a newspaper reporter and apparently didn't care." He
also said that "The FBI is a good tenant. It pays the rent on
The house - along with a yacht in Florida and hotel rooms in
Pennsylvania and New Jersey - was used to set up meetings between various
public officials and a mysterious Arab sheik named Abdul who wanted:
- To purchase asylum in the U.S.
- To involve them in an investment scheme
- To get help in getting his money out of his country
FBI agents posing as associates of Abdul approached various public
officials with Abdul's goals and how they could help to achieve them. The
FBI secretly videotaped each meeting and had no trouble finding
politicians willing to abuse their office in exchange for bribes. Despite
the convictions, the FBI itself became a target as politicians who were
not caught soon realized how easily they could have been.
Rep. Richard Kelly of Florida is notorious for a January 8, 1980
videotape showing him stuffing $25,000 worth of bribes in his pockets and
then turning to one of the agents and saying "Does it show?"
Kelly was lucky enough to encounter a judge sympathetic to the entrapment
excuse and, sadly, his conviction was overturned.
Angelo Errichetti was not as lucky. In 1981, New Jersey State Senator
Errichetti was sentenced to six years in prison and fined $40,000 for his
involvement in Abscam.
Representative Frank Thompson (D-N.J.), used $24,000 of campaign funds
for his legal fees related to his Abscam trial. This was actually legal at
the time but showed in the minds of many just how unethical some of these
"entrapped" defendants were.
On May 1, 1981, Senator Williams was convicted and on March 11, 1982, Senator
Williams of New Jersey resigned rather than have his colleagues vote
One of the Abscam figures was quoted on one of the videotapes as
claiming that then Hempstead Town Supervisor Al D'Amato was
"definitely taking contributions -- he's on the take." D'Amato -
who would be no stranger to scandal over the coming decades - later became
a three-term Senator for the state of New York. Ironically, he held
investigations into the Whitewater affair in the mid-90s.
Although a repeat of Abscam would doubtless net dozens if not hundreds
of convictions today, don't expect the Justice Department or the FBI to
conduct such a sting operation ever again. The political appointees to
Justice are well aware their party faithful were not amused by Abscam. For
a brief moment in our nations history starting with Watergate and ending
with Abscam, the American people learned what scoundrels their elected
officials were. One can only hope that future generations will recognize