In 1977 the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began a sting operation, known as Operation Abscam, that was to become one of the most controversial and depraved scandals in congressional history.
Looking for informants involved in white-collar crimes to help it make criminal cases, the bureau conscripted Melvin Weinberg, international con artist and convicted swindler, who was then facing a prison sentence for fraud. In exchange for a sentence of probation, Weinberg helped set up a phony company known as Abdul Enterprises, purportedly owned by a fictitious Arab sheikh. The cover story claimed that “Abdul” was a multimillionaire who wanted to withdraw his money from Islamic banks (which, by religious proscriptions, paid no interest) and invest it in profitable American business ventures.
Among the first notable figures caught in Abscam was Angelo Errichetti, the former mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and one of the most powerful politicians in the state. He acceptedpayoffs from “Abdul’s representative” (Weinberg) in exchange for assisting the sheikh to obtain an Atlantic City casino license. Errichetti later introduced Weinberg to senior U.S. Senator Harrison Arlington Williams, Jr., New Jersey’s best-known political figure, who, along with three partners, proposed a lucrative investment for the sheikh’s money. His group would borrow $100 million from Abdul and buy the nation’s largest titanium mine, located in Virginia. Williams, as one of the highest-ranking Democrats in the Senate, could channel government and defense contracts to his partners. He knew that his participation in the deal had to be hidden, since using his office to help obtain titanium contracts would be an obvious federal crime. He did not know that his meetings with Weinberg were being tape-recorded. In Weinberg’s words, Senator Williams “had been left standing bare-assed in Macy’s window.” In 1979, Errichetti was told that “Abdul” and an ersatz emir named “Yassir” were concerned about political unrest in their country and wanted to remain in the United States. Errichetti arranged meetings with two congressmen from Philadelphia, Michael Myers and Raymond Lederer, who pledged the use of their offices to help Abdul and Yassir obtain asylum. The price was $100,000 per congressman, which was later “marked down” to $50,000. The FBI set up hidden microphones and cameras in a hotel suite at New York’s Kennedy Airport to record the transaction. In a scene that would become familiar to tens of millions of television viewers, Myers boasted of his congressional influence and accepted a briefcase containing the $50,000 payoff. Lederer’s performance mirrored that of Myers. He promised to push a bill on behalf of Abdul and Yassir and calmly took a $50,000 bribe.