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Dengrove Collection Writeup

ABSCAM, FBI Sting Operation Targeting Political Corruption

U.S. v. Williams, 705 F.2d 603 (2d Cir. 1983)

In early 1978, FBI agents in a Long Island office enlisted a con man to help them recover stolen art and forged securities. The operation was limited in scope and basic in setup: federal agents pretended to be spokesmen for wealthy Arab businessmen who were willing to pay for illegal favors. The business they supposedly represented was called “Abdul Enterprises Limited”—hence the name ABSCAM.

The sting proved effective through summer 1978, but in the fall, some of the criminal middlemen began offering the services of a corrupt politician to facilitate the Arabs’ investments. Angelo Errichetti, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, arrived at a meeting and said he’d sell his influence.

ABSCAM soon transformed into the widest dragnet ever cast to prove wrongdoing on the part of public officials. Errichetti, still believing the agents’ cover story, became a pipeline to prominent politicians, including a senator (Harrison Williams) and six congressmen (Frank Thompson, John Murphy, Michael Myers, Richard Kelly, Raymond Lederer, and John Jenrette). 

The meetings and bribes were videotaped. The juries were unanimously convinced. Each defendant had a separate trial, no one was acquitted, and all resigned or were expelled from their offices.

ABSCAM called into question whether making bribes so easily available constituted entrapment, which is defined as inducing a person to commit a crime the person would otherwise be unlikely to commit. When asked about his willingness to sell his office, Representative John Jenrette said, “I’ve got larceny in my blood. I’d take it in a goddamn minute.”

The recent Oscar-winning film American Hustle is based on ABSCAM.