Sheikh Down

The Real Story and Lesson of the Abscam Sting in ‘American Hustle’

How much of the movie American Hustle actually happened, and what was the real legacy of the famous Abscam caper it’s based on?

David Handschuh/AP

What is the American hustle? Is it quintessentially American to make wealth any way you can, to do it as quickly as possible, and to wheel and deal and bribe and con as if that’s the natural order of things? America, so it seems, was founded on swindling the natives, kidnapping Africans, the scams of the robber barons, the sins of the gilded age, the Teapot Dome scandal, the Boss Tweeds, the Huey Longs (All the King’s Men), and the Richard Nixons (All the President’s Men). Moral and political corruption, the very heart of the American hustle, seems to have been with us always. Ask Americans just a few decades ago (or, indeed, Indians today) and they might say that graft is just how things get done. But think of corruption today and we would all accept nothing but a zero-tolerance policy.

What changed?

Go and watch the new David O. Russell film American Hustle, and you’ll see a very loose version of the Abscam caper of 1978 to 1980, the FBI sting that bagged six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, one U.S. senator, the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, city councilors of Philadelphia, and an Immigration and Naturalization Service official. Instead of a straight adaptation of the events, Russell is interested in dramatizing the irony and moral ambiguity of staging a hustle to catch hustlers, and how the operation itself was a hustle of questionable integrity. Was it entrapment? What part did ego, delusions, and indifference play? In fact, you’ll see all the contradictions internalized in one man. That man is Irving Rosenfeld, the character played by Christian Bale in American Hustle, who’s nothing like the real man behind Abscam. What Russell and Bale have created is someone deep and anguished, as complicated as the travesty of a comb-over on his head, and a symbol of how we are still dealing with the American hustle today.

The real Rosenfeld is a much simpler con man named Melvin Weinberg, who grew up in the Bronx and was indeed a convicted swindler who always wanted to make a quick buck. In the film, when he was a boy, Irving helped his father’s glass installation business by throwing rocks through storefront windows in order to drum up demand. But according to The Sting Man, Robert W. Greene’s telling of Weinberg’s story and the Abscam affair, Weinberg didn’t work for his father until after his first marriage, to a wife named Mary, who had three kids with him. And he was smashing windows because the glass business was heavily corrupt. Companies that bribed the union and cheated customers did well, and it was a union official who asked Weinberg to break the windows of storeowners who patronized nonunion glaziers. Russell’s invention is primal and direct, but Weinberg’s reality has an additional layer of cautionary irony. The corrupt union official’s name, by the way, was Irving.

Weinberg did start a firm called London Investors, and for a large nonrefundable upfront fee, he promised to secure for his clients huge loans that would never materialize. One of his victims was Vegas singer Wayne Newton, who was one of the lucky ones since he was only duped out of $850. Weinberg said the suckers were so eager that some of them got taken twice, although this doesn’t seem so crazy if you think about the high interest rates of the stagflation years.

By this time he had divorced Mary and married his mistress Marie, who’s named Rosalyn in the film and played by Jennifer Lawrence. With a new wife came a new mistress, and in the movie she’s named Sydney Prosser, played by Amy Adams, and she impersonates an English noblewoman, calling herself Lady Edith. In real life she was Evelyn Knight, who was actually English, and she was so beautiful that Weinberg would introduce her as Lady Evelyn (changed to Diane in Greene’s book to protect her identity) to use her in his scams, and nobody thought she was anything but nobility. (She actually almost left Weinberg for Wayne Newton.) She didn’t have a big part in Weinberg’s cons and he didn’t really tell her what he did—until one of the victims sued him and the feds had an arrest warrant out for this “Lady Evelyn.” At which point Weinberg, who was facing a grand jury himself, agreed to help the FBI with four cases if charges against her were dropped. In fact, Weinberg had already been an FBI informant for years. Because he always delivered, they wanted to hook him for more.

Initially the operation began as a low priority white-collar sting with a $32,000 budget to last maybe a few months. But one time, Weinberg helped the FBI recover some stolen paintings, and the company that had insured the paintings gave him a $10,000 reward for his efforts. That’s when he thought he could make a living helping the FBI—“as a government crook,” Greene wrote, as if that’s an official job description. He did it “strictly for the money,” Weinberg told Mike Wallace on 60 Minutes.

So he kept working for the FBI after the four cases were done, and thought up bigger and bigger schemes, finally settling on the standard version: he was the agent of millionaire businessman Kambir Abdul Rahman (who might have been the name of an actual Arab millionaire he met on a flight from Paris, but who knows?), a sheikh from the Arab Emirates. One of the scenarios was that the sheikh wanted to loan out his money at interest, but Islamic laws against usury prevented him from doing so, and he needed bogus or forged certificates of deposits to withdraw cash from Muslim banks to invest elsewhere. Others were told that he simply wanted to invest his millions in the U.S., or buy art and finance pornographic films.

The sheikh was portrayed by as many as three FBI agents throughout Abscam, which stood for Arab scam, until complaints from the American-Arab Relations Committee forced the FBI to say that it stood for Abdul scam instead. In American Hustle, the FBI could only get a Mexican-American to play the sheikh, and in reality they once staged a deal using an agent named Mike Denehy who spoke no Arabic at all and couldn’t even muster up “as-salamu alaykum.” Later they found a Lebanese-American agent who spoke some Arabic. They even added a second fictional sheikh, Yassir Habib, who was eventually promoted to the rank of emir. Again, all of this might not seem so insane once you think of how the OPEC oil embargos of 1973 and 1979 shot up the price of gasoline and swelled the wallets of many an Arab prince.

At first Weinberg targeted white-collar crooks like William Rosenberg, who was told that he’d gain $7 million in commissions if he could help the sheikh make a profitable $100-million investment in turning Atlantic City into the Vegas of the East. The only problem was that the sheikh needed a guarantee that the hotel-casino he was helping to build would get a gambling license. Don’t worry, Rosenberg said, he knew Camden mayor Angelo Errichetti.

Errichetti was a foul-mouthed megalomaniac and “a crook at heart,” Greene wrote. At their first meeting, Errichetti told Weinberg that he could promise a gambling license. “I’ll give you Atlantic City; without me, you do nothing,” he told the sheikh’s associates. “I’ll be your rabbi.” He wanted $400,000 in bribes. And over the next year, he offered to get the undercover agents into all types of scams. “He wanted to get into counterfeit money. He wanted to give us the port of Camden for narcotics,” Weinberg said. As The Sting Man shows, Abscam was becoming so outrageous that it was turning into an American Farce.

Errichetti opened Abscam wide, and connected Weinberg to a whole host of U.S. congressmen. It had become a political sting. By then, the sheikh wanted American citizenship, and middlemen were finding corrupt politicians who could help in the matter in exchange for cash. Errichetti’s proxy in American Hustle is Carmine Polito, played by Jeremy Renner. Russell created a charismatic and trusting family man who wanted the sheikh to reinvigorate Camden and Atlantic City—to create jobs for his people. Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld liked Polito so much that he engineered a scheme to blackmail the FBI into giving Polito a reduced sentence. That’s completely made up, although Weinberg did like Errichetti very much, not because he was a good man but because he was the biggest crook of them all. “He’s a likeable guy… he didn’t beat around the bush,” Weinberg told 60 Minutes. “He wanted to make money.”

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I was at first puzzled that Russell had imbued Polito with such benevolent qualities. But the decisive move turned a simple black and white heist movie into an examination of the American hustle in all its dizzying double-crossing games. As Rosenfeld says, the world is grey. Rosenfeld identifies with Polito, and his anguish is real, although it was not felt by Weinberg, who only wanted to make money (he was paid $150,000 by the FBI for his work) and outsmart the politicians, whom he called “a bunch of perverts, drunks, and crooks.” But many Americans, as well as Congress and the Justice Department, were deeply ambivalent, and some thought the whole Abscam affair was basically entrapment. In the end, Sen. Harrison “Pete” Williams of New Jersey, Reps. John Jenrette of South Carolina, Raymond Lederer and Michael “Ozzie” Myers of Pennsylvania, Frank Thompson of New Jersey, John Murphy of New York, and Richard Kelly of Florida, all of them Democrats except for Kelly, were convicted of bribery and conspiracy in 1981. Kelly fought his case on the grounds of entrapment but ultimately lost. Thompson initially didn’t take the money; Weinberg had to go after him a second time. Another Penn. congressman John Murtha and South Dakota senator Larry Pressler escaped indictment because they never took the case of money offered them.

The FBI official who thought up and headed Abscam was John Good, another Bronx native. But Weinberg liked to work with another agent, Tony Amoroso, who joined the fix later. In the film, the Bradley Cooper character Richie DiMaso is largely fictional but based loosely on Good and Amoroso. Both of them served as consultants to American Hustle, but neither of them had an affair with Weinberg’s mistress, who was not even involved in Abscam. (Neither was Marie, who sadly hung herself in 1982, a week after 20/20 aired a segment of her accusing her cheating husband of taking bribes and gifts—including, yes, a microwave oven.) It’s another of Russell’s great flourishes, however, to have DiMaso as aggressive and delusional as in the film. He thinks he’s the renegade hero outsmarting everyone, but is he just a violent lunatic staging a show to gain glory? DiMaso, in his Jheri curls and gold chains, simply embodied another side of the game. He’s even hustling himself.

In the movie, as DiMaso raised the stakes higher and higher, Rosenfeld felt increasingly uncomfortable about the whole thing. A few years ago Nixon had said, “I am not a crook,” and now DiMaso wanted to go after politicians, just when America was starting to trust the government again? It isn’t just Rosenfeld’s excuse to get out of a jam. A lot of people felt that way.

Indeed, in reality, public sentiments changed when it was revealed that a convicted conman was the mastermind, and that the bureau had spent more than half a million dollars. Though Abscam won 19 convictions, Congress took it personally, and made a spectacle of it, opening hearings and denying and delaying FBI appointments in a show of protest. All of which had an effect that Abscam became an even bigger story that the entire country knew about, and changed the public perception on corruption. Politicians weren’t so much seen as immoral and evil as just plain stupid, and who would want to be seen that way?

But behind the curtain, Congress successfully forced the U.S. attorney general to issue new guidelines that restricted undercover operations against politicians. The rules have made a large stunt like Abscam impossible to pursue today. The effect of all this is that, as a nation, we are far less tolerant of the misuse of political power, but officials lack the claws to police the matter.

To this day, people debate whether Abscam was a milestone that brought graft to a whole new light and assured that politicians wouldn’t likely take the risk again, or whether it was a botched investigation that ripped apart straw men. American Hustle gives no answer, no solace to our uncertainty. It even escalates the discomfort and duplicity by magnitudes. But we can recognize that heavy-handed corruption ought to belong to the era of flamboyant comb-overs and aviator glasses. Just look at the likes of James Traficant and Rod Blagojevich. They look like they came from the age of Abscam, and should have stayed there.