In a year when the label “worst Congress ever” is being invoked as never before, a movie about the most over-the-top corruption scandal in congressional history is topping the roster of Oscar contenders.
But will that prove to be bad luck, or a bit of good fortune, for the Capitol’s currently dismal reputation?
It’s easier to predict that the success of “American Hustle” will reinforce the public perception of the Hill as a metaphorical (and sometimes literal) den of thieves. But it’s possible, and arguably more appropriate, for the audience of voters to come to a somewhat different conclusion: While the lawmaking system may have become deeply frozen by partisanship during the past three decades, the baseline for congressional morality actually looks to have gotten a bit better since then.
Of course, there remains the expansive and minimally regulated gray area in which campaign contributions cross paths with legislative interests, with the best-connected lobbyists always figuring out ways to enjoy insider access to the lawmakers who matter most. And a dozen or more allegations against members, most of them relatively petty, are moving through the ethics process at any time. But only twice in the past decade (Republican Rep. Duke Cunningham of California in 2005 and Democratic Rep. William Jefferson of Louisiana in 2009) have members been convicted for taking straight-up bribes.
There’s a persuasive argument to be made that corruption at the Capitol has decreased because sunshine on lawmaker behavior has increased. Self-policing by Congress, though improved a bit in recent years, is only partly responsible. Sharing the credit are investigative journalists, government watchdog groups, the new monitors of social media — and also the old-line purveyors of the popular culture.
So the film’s director, David O. Russell, should be credited with performing a valuable, if unintended, public service, along with spinning a terrifically entertaining and financially successful caper yarn. (It has been nominated for 10 Oscars, including Best Picture. Already the winner of the Golden Globe for Best Comedy and the Screen Actors Guild’s Best Ensemble prize, “Hustle” has taken in $117 million after six weekends in theaters.)
At its heart, the movie is about the con-artist-turned-informant who helped orchestrate the Abscam sting operation — his relationships with his mistress-accomplice, his wife, his FBI handler and a small-time local politician pulsing like a comedic and dramatic strobe light off a disco ball. Much of it is imagined, though loosely grounded in fact, which is why the film opens with these words on screen: “Some of this actually happened.”
One of the things that did actually happen is that Abscam (the Feds’ crass contraction of “Arab” and “scam”) climaxed in 1980 and 1981 with the convictions of a senator and six House members, all of whom were driven from office. Those lawmakers served one to three years in prison after falling for the centerpiece ruse of the FBI’s undercover operation: Middle Eastern sheiks and their American representatives looking to do business in the United States, and willing to pay lawmakers generous amounts of cash to speed up the process.
The movie portrays these bribes as a collection of briefcases filled with cash being passed, in rapid-fire fashion, to lawmakers with made-up names. With respect for the truism about those who are ignorant of history being the likeliest to repeat it, here are sketches of the seven lawmakers who actually got stung, pieced together from published accounts and the FBI videos:
New Jersey’s Pete Williams was the only senator implicated. He was the ranking Democrat on the Banking Committee and a former chairman of what was then the Labor and Human Resources panel when he resigned in 1982, just as he was about to become the first senator ever expelled for corruption. (The vacancy opened the door to Frank R. Lautenberg’s election later that year.)
Williams was convicted for taking stock in a phony mining company on the promise of getting federal contracts for the business. Among his defenses: that there was no bribe because the stock was worthless, that he was being singled out for prosecution because he didn’t endorse Jimmy Carter’s presidential re-election.
Florida House member Richard Kelley was the only Republican indicted. Videotape showed him at the Georgetown townhouse where many of the stings were staged, stuffing $25,000 in his pockets and then asking if the undercover agent could see the bulge in his pants.
One of Kelley’s defenses was that he was conducting his own investigation of shady characters. He also maintained he’d been entrapped, an argument mounted by all of the Abscam Seven. Only Kelley got anywhere with that approach. A federal judge briefly threw out his conviction, but the government persuaded an appeals court to reinstate it.
Philadelphia Democrat Ozzie Myers was convicted after jurors saw him on tape fondling an envelope stuffed with cash, boasting of his relationships with local Mafia bosses and offering this famous advice to the undercover agents: “Money talks in this business and bullshit walks.”
Myers then became the first member expelled from the House since 1861. His defense was that he hadn’t been bribed because he never intended to do what he promised: push legislation speeding the immigration of one of the ersatz Arab businessmen.
Another Philadelphian, Raymond Lederer, was the only one of the group who won re-election after his 1980 indictment. But he resigned after his trial the next spring, after the key videotaped exchange showed him proclaiming, “I can give you me” in exchange for the $50,000 being proffered — in a year when member pay was $61,000. (After prison he went to work as a roofer.)
South Carolina’s John Jenrette resigned after his conviction and in the face of expulsion. He was caught on audio tape explaining how he’d taken $50,000 after promising to introduce an immigration bill. “I’ve got larceny in my blood,” he explained during another recorded meeting.
Those details aside, Jenrette is best known as the member of Congress who snuck off the House floor for a late-night outdoor tryst with his wife. “The Capitol Steps” took its name from the locale of the assignation, which Rita Jenrette described to Playboy in 1984 but now says never happened.
As chairman of the House Administration Committee, Frank Thompson of New Jersey was the most senior and most influential House member among the scammed. He was also the only one who offered to introduce the FBI poseurs to other members who might be on the take, and the only one whose successor remains a member of Congress today. Thompson was convicted after losing in 1980 to Republican Christopher H. Smith.
The only member who took a cash bribe after Thompson’s introduction was John Murphy of New York, who was chairman of the since-disbanded Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee and promised to help the phony agents with their phony Arab shipping businesses. (He, Myers and Jenrette are still alive, and his son Mark Murphy was the unsuccessful 2012 challenger to GOP Rep. Michael G. Grimm.)
One more member came perilously close to having his career ended by Abscam — and his is the name that remains freshest on the minds of the people who populate Congress today. Pennsylvania’s John P. Murtha, who died in 2010 after 21 years as the top Democratic defense appropriator in the House, was videotaped saying, “I’m not interested at this point,” when an agent offered him $50,000 in cash. “If we do business for a while, maybe I’ll be interested, maybe I won’t,” he volunteered, before saying he’d instead like to see the money invested legally in his district.
Murtha was named an unindicted co-conspirator and became a star witness against both Thompson and Murphy. But then the House Ethics Committee declined to propose any discipline at all, causing the panel’s top Abscam counsel to quit in protest.
It’s a coda to the story that would surely be different today.