FBI's Abscam Videos Are As Unbelievable As 'American Hustle'

Feb 27, 2014
Originally published on February 27, 2014 7:30 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

One of the frontrunners for the Oscars this weekend is "American Hustle," a caper movie about con artists, the FBI, the mob and the Abscam sting operation that sent seven members of Congress to prison in the early 1980s. The film begins with a statement, quote, "some of this actually happened."

And so we asked NPR's Peter Overby how much. Peter checked out some of the actual surveillance videos, and he says they were as unbelievable as the movie.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Let's start with the usual opening scene: An FBI agent facing the hidden camera, just like the movie, but grittier.

(SOUNDBITE OF FBI VIDEO)

OVERBY: Amoroso has bundles of hundred dollar bills, $50,000 in all.

(SOUNDBITE OF FBI VIDEO)

OVERBY: Amoroso was playing someone who worked for some Arab sheiks. They supposedly wanted to invest in America, but needed citizenship papers to make it work, and they were willing to pay to get them. The tape shows the arrival of Congressman John Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat. "American Hustle" echoes the scene. Here's a lawmaker in the movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AMERICAN HUSTLE")

OVERBY: And here's Murtha in the townhouse

(SOUNDBITE OF FBI VIDEO)

OVERBY: In real life, on the video, Murtha never comes near the money, and so he never gets charged. They talk for nearly an hour: Amoroso, two middlemen who are in on the sting and Murtha, who keeps steering the conversation away from himself and back to the needs of his district.

(SOUNDBITE OF FBI VIDEO)

OVERBY: But then again...

(SOUNDBITE OF FBI VIDEO)

OVERBY: That business never happened. Murtha went on to have a long career in Congress, unlike seven of his colleagues on Capitol Hill.

Congressman John Jenrette, a Democrat from South Carolina, became known for telling the FBI: I got larceny in my blood. The line lived on in Washington and gets a hat tip in "American Hustle." Just as memorable in D.C., yet another Abscam Democrat, Pennsylvania Congressman Michael Ozzie Myers, said this into the mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF FBI VIDEO)

OVERBY: And perhaps the strangest tale of all, Congressman Richard Kelly of Florida, videotaped shoving $25,000 into his suit pockets. His defense?

REPRESENTATIVE RICHARD KELLY: I was presented, as a member of Congress, with a unique opportunity to gain information about what I believed to be a criminal conspiracy.

OVERBY: Kelly told reporters he didn't want to take the money.

KELLY: What I hoped to learn, however, by continuing my investigation, held out the promise of being of vital interest to the United States.

OVERBY: Kelly was the only Republican among the six representatives and one senator convicted in Abscam.

DON RITCHIE: This is a tiny minority of Members of Congress. But the whole institution gets a black eye as a result.

OVERBY: This is Don Ritchie, the official historian of the Senate. The Abscam videotape wasn't released till the trials, well after the tapes were made. But Ritchie says they had an impact.

RITCHIE: It was still in the era of three networks, but that gave them something to show. And, you know, it made the story more real.

OVERBY: But it got the FBI in hot water with Congress. Abscam was the first FBI sting on Capitol Hill, and it's also been the last.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.