(Illustration by Jamie Ramsay, AB’99)

American Hustle and me

Leslie Maitland, AB’71, recalls her role breaking the story of the real Abscam, which inspired the “terrifically amusing satire” American Hustle.

On Saturday, February 2, 1980, Thomas P. Puccio, then chief of the federal Organized Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, struggled in a last attempt to win the cooperation of a key target in the most daring undercover investigation of political corruption in the nation’s history. At the New York Times, I was racing to finish a story that would soon make Abscam front-page headlines from coast to coast.

I was reaching out for comment from the operation’s biggest catch, Senator Harrison A. Williams Jr., Democrat of New Jersey, while FBI agents positioned around the country swooped down on him and many others who would face charges in the bribery probe. As Puccio later described that climactic day in his memoirs, the potential informer rejected any further bargaining and stalked out of the Strike Force office around 8 p.m. after overhearing talk in the hallway that the story was already running in the Times.

Indeed, the early edition of the Sunday paper hit Midtown newsstands that evening and the story was flying across the wires. Phones rang nonstop, with other media organizations calling from everywhere to demand whether the zany, blockbuster story could be believed. It tested credulity. Senator Williams and seven House members had been caught up in a two-year covert operation in which agents posed as businessmen and Arab sheikhs willing to pay bribes to officials who agreed to further their financial ventures. Code-named Abscam for Arab scam or Abdul Enterprises Ltd.—the phony Arab business the FBI concocted—it featured an agent masquerading as a sheikh and surreptitious video recordings to capture the politicians pledging to trade favors for what ultimately totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash.

Fast-forward more than three decades. When I first learned that Amy Adams would be starring in an Abscam movie called American Hustle, I couldn’t help but daydream that she’d be playing me. After all, I’d been the woman most visibly involved, especially as uproar mounted over preindictment publicity. Allegations swirled, even within the Justice Department, that someone had leaked me the government’s confidential 80-page prosecution memorandum. So when I recently asked federal district court judge Edward R. Korman whether he’d seen the movie yet—since he’d been the US attorney with Abscam under his authority and handled the appeals—I had to laugh when he shot right back, “Who plays you?”

While the Times coverage makes it into the movie, however, I personally do not. And while the film begins with the disclaimer, “Some of this actually happened,” there’s a good deal that Hollywood contributes to events. Most significantly, the two main female characters played no part in the actual operation. Likewise, the involvement of the Mafia, so brilliantly embodied on screen by Robert De Niro, is fantasy.

When it comes to the central role of Irving Rosenfeld, the swindler who turned FBI informer to save himself from prison and then proved instrumental in the sting, the movie does the real con artist, Melvin Weinberg, more than justice. Christian Bale’s deliberately paunchy, bearded, balding, cigar-chomping personification is a younger and more seductive figure than was Weinberg. Nonetheless, in 1980, I couldn’t help but marvel at this charlatan’s ability to trick theoretically sophisticated public officials into believing that an immensely wealthy Arab sheikh would choose him as a representative. For starters, he was a Jew, and besides, his wise-guy language and demeanor seemed incongruous.

Yet in meetings in posh places with elected officials, Weinberg convincingly described the sheikh as prepared to pay bribes for help securing a casino gaming license in Atlantic City and permission to reside long-term in the United States. When outrage inevitably erupted in Congress at what some decried as a “fishing expedition” that unfairly lured its victims into the net, the Justice Department took pains to show that a modest attempt to investigate stolen art and counterfeit certificates of deposit had only detoured unexpectedly into political corruption. In each instance, crooked middlemen unwittingly led undercover agents to politicians alleged to have previously engaged in illicit bargains. Key among these middlemen was Camden, New Jersey, mayor Angelo Errichetti, or Carmine Polito, sympathetically portrayed by Jeremy Renner, in the movie.

“The significant thing about this case is that if Tom [Puccio] had gone to the Justice Department with a scam to catch congressmen and senators, they would not have authorized it in a million years,” Judge Korman told me recently. “Not then, not now. But once it started going, the department couldn’t stop it, especially since there was a Democratic administration in the White House and most of the suspect officials were Democrats.” All of those charged were convicted, he noted, and every one of their convictions was upheld on appeal.

I have never disclosed to anyone how I learned extensive details about the probe before its targets were arrested or indicted. In that journalistic era—the Washington Post’s Deep Throat already an anonymously honored Watergate whistleblower, the New York Times’s reckless Jayson Blair not yet a warning symbol of reportorial perfidy—my editors respected my sources’ confidentiality. Scores of agents assigned to a $750,000 government leak investigation, in which even Puccio had to take a lie detector test, failed to find the answer.

When a Senate select committee convened hearings on Abscam and the legality of its investigative tactics in 1982, the Times transferred me from New York to the Washington Bureau to report on them and then assigned me to cover the Justice Department. In Washington I met the man I married, had children, and remained. Then one day last fall my husband came home and said he had played golf with a really nice guy who claimed to have known me longer than he had.

Irvin B. Nathan, now attorney general for the District of Columbia, had been deputy assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division in the Carter administration in 1980 and hence involved in Abscam. It would be fun, Irv had suggested, for us to go see American Hustle together. And so we did, agreeing at dinner afterward that the film was a terrifically amusing satire, if wildly different from what occurred.

Still, memories of Tom Puccio sadly tempered our evening. He died two years ago at the age of 67 and is depicted in the film as a glory-seeking bureaucrat with limited direct engagement in the case (Alessandro Nivola playing Anthony Amado). “Not right!” Irv groused, that the dynamic Abscam prosecutor is portrayed that way. “Tom was the soul of the operation, and the agents trusted him,” he said. “They expressly tried to set up meetings with the politicians in locations that would put them on Tom’s turf.”

We clinked glasses to toast Tom, the true scriptwriter of the evening. For all we seek to plan our lives, I found myself reflecting, our paths—including those that lead to prison and to front pages—are unexpectedly diverted by the people whom we meet and the trust we place in one another. “You can’t cheat an honest man,” my father used to say. On the other hand, some seem to con the gods themselves. Mel Weinberg not only won a reprieve from prosecution and $200,000 for his work in Abscam, but now near 90 in Florida retirement, he also reportedly sold the film rights to his “life” story for a quarter of a million dollars. That’s American Hustle for you.

Leslie Maitland is an award-winning former investigative reporter for the New York Times, the author of Crossing the Borders of Time: A True Story of War, Exile, and Love Reclaimed (Other Press, 2012), and a frequent panelist on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show. Links to some of her original Abscam coverage can be found at lesliemaitland.com.