The news over the weekend that a federal sting had nailed two Dade County mayors and a pair of lobbyists on the same day is unusual, but a long way from a record for government corruption investigations. Some people call it entrapment, for the public officials involved did not go looking to do something illegal. The alleged bribers sought them out, but such cases usually start with a pretty good hunch that the targets have been on the take, and only needed a little baiting to prove it.
This case is small potatoes compared to some federal stings in the past. One of the biggest was in the late 1970s when a con man posing as an Arab sheik, doing much of his work in South Florida, brought down 19 people, including a U.S. senator and state senator from New Jersey, six congressmen (one from Florida), several Philadelphia city councilman and related parties.
The sting was code named Abscam and the master con-man behind the scenes, Mel Weinberg, lived in the Jensen Beach area. He agreed to work for the government in order to stay out of jail, and being paid a fee of $150,000. Nice money for doing what you love. Weinberg was an entertaining storyteller; his involvement was entertainment in itself – a Jewish guy from the Bronx pretending to represent an Arab trying to get highly placed help in various illegal activities, including political asylum and money laundering. He was profiled in Gold Coast magazine by our late colleague, Gaeton Fonzi. Much of the sting occurred in South Florida. Weinberg nicknamed a West Palm Beach hotel where many meetings took place the “Gotcha Hotel.” He described one incident where a number of marks were invited about the sheik’s yacht in Delray Beach where just about everybody else aboard, posing as guests and crew, were FBI.
The only problem was the FBI had no budget for such a lavish function. It could barely pay for the limousine to escort a phony Arab to the party. An FBI man jokingly suggested that Weinberg try to con one of the political targets – the mayor of Camden, N.J. – into paying for the event.
Recalled Weinberg in the 1981 article: “So that night I call the mayor and tell, 'We’re gonna throw this party in your honor but we’re gonna do it the Arab way. The Arab way is that you have to pay for it.' He says, 'What do you mean, I have to pay?' So I explained to him the Arab way and how we don’t want to insult the Emir Yassir Habib by making him pay for the party. The mayor says, 'Well, hey, Mel, no problem.' Then he conned a Mafiso figure who has a produce business, supplies all the restaurants, the mayor cons him out of the food and the mayor himself buys the booze.”
The night was a stunning success, highlighted by the presentation of a knife bought by Weinberg for $2.75 at a flea market. They cleaned it up, put some chrome on it, and presented it to the mayor by Emir Yassir Habib (an FBI guy) as an Arab symbol of everlasting friendship.
Unlike the recent Miami event, the political types were not snared all at once. The FBI only ended its work when news media began to pick up the story. Weinberg, whose contempt for public servants was manifest, told Fonzi that given enough time he could have done better. Weinberg explained: “I think we would have gotten one-third of Congress. I once said Congress was a bunch of perverts, crooks and drunks. You may laugh at that, but it’s true.”
Although probably not part of his contract, Weinberg found himself tutoring the FBI agents in the art of the con.
“The FBI had never done anything like this before,” Weinberg told Fonzi. “The only one who was used to setting things up like that was me. They went along but they had second thoughts a lot of times. They used to fight me. I mean they still believe in wearing Sears & Roebuck suits. Their way of thinking and doing business is not the way a con man does it. Every time you suggested something - like using a limousine, for instance – you had to argue like mad to get them to go along. I used to get aggravated sometimes so much that they were gonna blow it.”
The FBI men involved in the recent sting likely benefited from the Abscam experience. Probably they dressed a little better, possibly in Jos. A. Bank suits. Buy one, get one free.