“American Hustle” is based on the real-life Abscam scandal of the 1970’s. While many details have been changed, some of the most improbable characters and events really did happen.
Christian Bale and Amy Adams play con artists who are caught by an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper. He gets them to cooperate with him to bring down some bigger fish and ends up unexpectedly snaring a senator and six members of Congress.
The elaborate sting ensnared seven members of Congress, including six in the House of Representatives and a veteran U.S. Senator, along with a powerful New Jersey state legislator, three Philadelphia councilmen and a number of high-level political operatives. Abscam involved phony, oil-rich Arab sheiks with suitcases full of cash, stolen artwork, payoffs for Atlantic City casino licenses and backroom influence peddling that generated worldwide headlines and set off political shockwaves for years thereafter.
The undercover probe, which came to light in February 1980, ultimately led to the convictions of Sen. Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), Camden Democratic Mayor Angelo Errichetti, New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Thompson Jr., and other lawmakers, who were caught on secretly recorded surveillance video accepting tens of thousands of dollars in bribes.
It was a sting that still enrages defense attorneys who say it was based on crimes the government itself created. Sharply criticized by one federal district judge who accused the government of using “outrageous” tactics, the affair was flatly labeled a case of prosecutorial misconduct by a former U.S. Attorney for the District of New Jersey.
But it was an enterprise that rewrote the books for FBI undercover operations and led to more than a dozen criminal convictions and rejected appeals.
The character Bale plays is based on Mel Weinberg, who worked with FBI agents in setting up a fake company called Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. headed up by a fictitious Arab sheik. (Abscam is a contraction of Abdul and scam.) The plan was to get evidence on crooks and mobsters, and they did, as well as recovering some valuable stolen artwork. But it ended up being a political corruption case when elected officials took bribes. It became very controversial because, as one government lawyer said, it was “a scam within a scam,” and violated Justice Department guidelines for undercover operations, including paying Weinberg $150,000 for his role.
Here’s a real-life Abscam video: