Operation ABSCAM: FBI Undercover Op Targets Lawmakers Accepting Bribes

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NBC News
Tom Snyder/Brian Ross
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Video News Report
NBCUniversal Media, LLC.
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In 1980, NBC News investigative reporter Brian Ross reveals details of the FBI's undercover Operation ABSCAM, called "biggest political scandal in the U.S. since Watergate."



"Operation ABSCAM: FBI Undercover Op Targets Lawmakers Accepting Bribes." Brian Ross, correspondent. NBC News. NBCUniversal Media. 2 Feb. 1980. NBC Learn. Web. 17 January 2015.


Ross, B. (Reporter), & Snyder, T. (Anchor). (1980, February 2). Operation ABSCAM: FBI Undercover Op Targets Lawmakers Accepting Bribes. [Television series episode]. NBC News. Retrieved from https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=46411


"Operation ABSCAM: FBI Undercover Op Targets Lawmakers Accepting Bribes" NBC News, New York, NY: NBC Universal, 02/02/1980. Accessed Sat Jan 17 2015 from NBC Learn: https://archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=46411


Operation ABSCAM: FBI Undercover Op Targets Lawmakers Accepting Bribes

TOM SNYDER, anchor:

Some big names in politics got visits today from agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI agents wrapping up the undercover phase of something called operation ABSCAM. It’s what one U.S. attorney calls the biggest political scandal in this country since Watergate.

Brian Ross, who has been covering the investigation, is standing by in Washington tonight with an exclusive report on operation ABSCAM. Here’s Brian.

BRIAN ROSS reporting:

Tom, all of this started more than a year ago, in November of 1978, in Brooklyn. It was a rather routine FBI undercover investigation of a stolen property-fencing ring. What was routine for the FBI soon became extraordinary. The FBI says it found an organized crime informant who told the FBI about dealings with dozens of politicians in a number of states and in Washington D.C.

This is Senator Harrison Williams of New Jersey, a Democrat. These pictures of Williams were made this morning outside the Senator’s house in Washington, while Williams is under FBI surveillance. Williams is one of more than 20 public officials from five states who have become targets of FBI operation ABSCAM.

Since last spring on this quiet, residential street in an expensive section of Washington, the FBI has been running what amounts to a sting operation on the Congress. And the sting operation has been elaborate. These pictures were made by NBC News with a special night vision camera. This townhouse was the scene of lavish parties, thrown by undercover FBI agents who are posing as businessmen with Arab money backing.

This sketch of the interior was made my NBC News artist Betty Wells, who viewed the townhouse from a concealed location. The townhouse was furnished by expensive antiques, borrowed by the FBI from the Smithsonian Institution. The lighting inside was extra bright because concealed FBI T.V. cameras recorded everything that happened here. In the basement, behind a well-stocked wine rack, was the equivalent of a network T.V. control room. There was a chauffeur for the limousine, a butler and a maid, all undercover FBI agents. And this townhouse was just one of a number of locations where FBI agents are said to have paid out more than a million dollars in bribes to influence members of Congress and other public officials.

There were payoffs made elsewhere in the Washington area. At the Marriott Twin Bridges motel in Arlington, Virginia. There were payoffs made on a yacht docked in Miami. And in New York City, undercover agents met with politicians at the Plaza Hotel to set up payoffs.

Among those identified by federal investigators as targets of the operation are Congressmen Michael Myers and Raymond Lederer of Philadelphia, Congressmen John Jenrette of South Carolina, Congressman Frank Thompson Junior of New Jersey, and Congressman John Murphy of New York and another Congressman from Florida who was unidentified. All are Democrats. None was available for comment.

Tonight, FBI agents were seen entering the home of New Jersey Senator Harrison Williams. These pictures were made by NBC News with a special night lens. Sources say that more than 100 FBI agents today confronted the targets of operation ABSCAM, telling them of the evidence against them. In the case of Senator Williams, federal investigators say the senator did not take cash directly, but instead was involved in promising to use his influence in conversations with the undercover FBI agents. After the FBI agents had left his home this evening, Senator Williams had this to say about the investigation:

Sen. HARRISON WILLIAMS, Jr. (Democrat, New Jersey): Just a few minutes ago two members of the FBI were here and for the first time I learned about this and really don’t know any of the facts of anything and therefore I-- I’m in no position to comment about what I’m not--what I don’t know is happening at the department but the department apparently has told you a lot more than they‘ve told me.

Unidentified Reporter: You’re not the target of an investigation Senator?


Unidentified Reporter: Can you say that you’re not the target of an investigation?

WILLIAMS: Right now it appears that I am, and that’s about all for now.

ROSS: So far, no one has been indicted or convicted or even arrested. Today was just the wind up of the windup of the undercover phase of the ABSCAM investigation. Later this month, prosecutors will present their evidence to federal grand juries in Washington and elsewhere. Tom.

SNYDER: Brian do we know what was on the videotapes the FBI made inside that mansion?

ROSS: The tapes show, in many cases, the FBI undercover agents handing over the cash to various congressmen and public officials. In some cases, I’m told, the one public official took the money and started stuffing it into his pockets, any pocket he could find, to hide the bills. The payoffs were in the range of $50,000 sometimes $100,000.

SNYDER: Did anybody refuse the money?

ROSS: I’m told not one person said no, not one of the public officials who was asked said no or reported what would be considered an improper approach.

SNYDER: In return for the money promised or given, do we have any idea of what was promised back by the suspected lawmakers here?

ROSS: Well the undercover agents presented themselves as people who wanted do business in this country, as people who had Arab money backing. They wanted assurances from public officials that they could get around certain laws that might be troublesome for them. Then they could do business with impunity in the areas they were trying to get into. In many cases they just made up any story that seemed feasible at the time.

SNYDER: Considering the investigations of the FBI by Congress within recent memory, you suppose the FBI felt any pressures of its own during this investigation?

ROSS: Oh I’m sure that they were concerned. I know Judge William Webster personally moved to stop the investigation at this point. He felt that it was important that those congressmen who were implicated are either acquitted or convicted by the time of the election. There are some agents and prosecutors in the field who feel the investigation could have gone on for a lot longer and implicated a great deal many more congressmen and other public officials. But for whatever reason it has now the covert part, the hidden part, has stopped.

SNYDER: And this is something new for the FBI isn’t it?

ROSS: It really is. It’s only been in the last two years or so that the FBI has been active in pursuing undercover opportunities. Under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI just could not get involved in that kind of case and now with a recent investigation of the Longshoreman’s Association on the east coast and now this investigation of Congress, the FBI seems to be not afraid at all to go into an undercover posture.

SNYDER: There’s one other thing we shouldn’t leave out here and that’s the possibility of entrapment. Could it be said by those who might be accused of something that there was entrapment involved here on the part of the FBI?

ROSS: I think that will probably be one of the defenses of anyone who would eventually be indicted in this case. The people who were running the investigation say that they took steps at each--each step of the way to make sure that the conversations of the undercover FBI agents would not be considered entrapment and would in fact hold up in court. That will be the final test of course, in court.

SNYDER: Brian you have-- you’ve had a long and difficult day. Thank you very, very much. Brian Ross reporting from our studios at NBC…


ROSS: Thank you Tom.

SNYDER: …in Washington D.C., O.K. sir.