February 3, 1980 | ABSCAM FBI Sting

 ABSCAM surveillance image

“I’ve got larceny in my heart.”

-Congressman John W. Jenrette, Jr.

So boasted the congressman from South Carolina, John W. Jenrette, Jr., as he accepted a $50,000 bribe from an undercover FBI agent. The congressman’s quip was caught on an FBI surveillance tape and played to great effect during his trial for bribery and conspiracy. Jenrette was not the only politician nabbed during a two-year FBI sting involving a fake Arab sheik willing to pay to do business in the US. One senator, six congressmen, and over a dozen other state and city officials were found guilty of bribery and conspiracy.

The FBI somewhat foolishly dubbed the program ABSCAM, combining scam with the name of the fake sheik’s phony company, Abdul Enterprises, Ltd. The Bureau faced a lot of heat when the story of the creative scheme broke on February 3, 1980, particularly for relying on a known con artist to set up and help work the operation.* The debate centered on whether the undercover agents had entrapped the pols and convinced them to commit a crime to which they were not “independently predisposed.”  The numerous appeals pleading entrapment failed and the ABSCAM convictions were all upheld in court.

Today, public corruption investigations are a top priority for the FBI, and while they still make use of undercover operations—according to Brian Nadeau, the chief of the Public Corruption unit—the Bureau “has become more strategic in the way we manage our programs and threats.” 


*The release of the motion picture American Hustle in 2013, loosely based on the ABSCAM events, proves it is still a hot story.