Mel Weinberg, Grifter Turned Stoolie Portrayed In ‘American Hustle,’ Dies at 93
Posted June 6, 2018 8:48 p.m. EDT
Mel Weinberg, the con artist whose greatest hustle was the FBI’s 1978-79 Abscam sting, using phony Arab sheikhs, a yacht in Florida and suitcases of money to snare a senator, six congressmen and other public officials for influence peddling, died on May 30 in a hospital near his home in Titusville, Florida. He was 93.
His death was confirmed by his ex-wife Evelyn Weinberg.
A convicted swindler with a Runyonesque persona, Weinberg — facing prison for fraud — traded his criminal savvy for probation and became a principal orchestrator and actor in the two-year operation code-named Abscam. The operation videotaped politicians and others taking bribes from federal agents posing as oil-rich Arabs seeking favors on immigration problems and investment projects.
The case was the most spectacular corruption scandal of its era. Breaking publicly in 1980, it spawned almost daily revelations of self-incriminating conversations and exchanges of cash in scenes played out aboard a 65-foot yacht — a prize seized by customs agents in a drug bust — and in airport motels, a Washington town house and hotel suites in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
With chartered jets, limousines and parties to lend verisimilitude, the government-run scam led to convictions and prison terms for Sen. Harrison A. Williams, D-N.J., as well as the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, and 17 others. It inspired a revision of guidelines in federal undercover cases and legal and ethical debates over whether the defendants had been unlawfully entrapped.
It also led to the 2013 movie “American Hustle,” with a bulked-up Christian Bale playing the scandal’s central figure, Weinberg (named Irving Rosenfeld onscreen). Directed by David O. Russell and nominated for 10 Oscars, the film, which took many liberties with the case and its characters, was based loosely on “The Sting Man” (1981), a biography of Weinberg by Robert W. Greene.
Weinberg’s early life was a catalog of petty, sometimes bizarre, crime. He once sold 5,000 pairs of socks that had been manufactured with no soles. He peddled inferior glass to Italian-Americans by attaching “made in Italy” stickers. He tried to swindle Yaqui Indians in Mexico out of their gold-mining rights. He silenced a cousin, whom he had cheated, with a bogus threat of a mob contract killing.
He later specialized in what he called “advance fee” dodges. For “processing” fees of $1,000 or more, he promised to arrange million-dollar loans from “overseas banks” for people with shaky credit. The loans were as bogus as the banks. He stalled anxious clients for as long as possible, but eventually had to acknowledge, with sad apologies but no refunds, that the loans had not been approved.
“When a guy is in a jam and lookin’ for money, it’s my philosophy to give hope,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1982. “If you say you can’t do nothin’, you’re killin’ his hope. Everybody has to have hope. That’s why most people don’t turn us in to the cops. They keep hopin’ we’re for real.”
Weinberg was a wizard at crafting illusions. He called his firm London Investors and kept plush offices on Long Island, in Melville, to inspire confidence. He said he represented interests in Switzerland, England and the Middle East. He was “the chairman,” and his colleague, an Englishwoman who added a touch of class (played by Amy Adams in “American Hustle”), was actually a housemaid and his mistress.
After decades as a scam artist, Weinberg was nabbed by federal authorities in 1977. In exchange for probation and a salary and bonuses that netted him a total of $150,000, he agreed to create and run a series of stings that began with the recovery of stolen art and shifted to political corruption, with chilling scenes of greed and bribery played for hidden cameras. Weinberg created a fake company, Abdul Enterprises (hence the contraction Abscam), with federal agents posing as sheikhs in Arab robes and kaffiyeh headscarves, with millions of dollars to buy political favors and invest in anything — a titanium mine, casino licenses, loans to the mob.
“We had a big honey pot, and all the flies came to it,” Weinberg later testified.
He played a shady middleman in the stings: a squat man with a gray beard, a gravelly voice and orange-tinted glasses. He coached potential bribe takers on how to impress a sheikh, suggested ways to make deals and laced his conversations with obscenity and authentic Bronx street talk. He waved a big cigar to show how easy it would all be.
Some politicians jumped at the chance to peddle their influence.
“I’ll give you Atlantic City — without me, you do nothing,” Mayor Angelo J. Errichetti of Camden, who was also a state senator and a political power in southern New Jersey, bragged of his contacts to arrange a casino license for a $50,000 kickback. The appreciative sheikh gave him the money and a gleaming “tribal” dagger as a gift. Weinberg had bought the dagger at a flea market for $2.75.
“I got larceny in my blood — I’ll take it in a goddamn minute,” Rep. John W. Jenrette Jr. of South Carolina said when asked if he would take money to introduce a bill to let a wealthy Arab immigrate to the United States. He demanded $150,000 but settled for $50,000.
“Money talks in this business,” said Rep. Michael J. Myers of Philadelphia, who took $50,000 to arrange permanent residence for a sheikh who wanted to look after his investments in the United States.
“I’m no Boy Scout,” Rep. Raymond F. Lederer, also of Philadelphia, said when he accepted $50,000 to help a sheikh immigrate to escape trouble in his homeland.
Williams, a champion of organized labor and social welfare, was Abscam’s biggest prize. He rejected a cash bribe. But five months later, he agreed to use his influence to obtain government contracts to buy the output of a Virginia titanium mine in which he had an 18 percent hidden interest. The sheikh, he was told, was willing to invest $100 million in the deal.
Weinberg was a star witness at bribery-conspiracy trials in New York, Washington and Philadelphia in 1980 and 1981. Besides Williams, Errichetti and Jenrette, Myers and Lederer, the defendants included Reps. Frank Thompson of New Jersey, John Murphy of New York and Richard Kelly of Florida. All were Democrats except Kelly, a Republican.
Videotaped evidence shown to jurors on large courtroom monitors was overwhelming. Defense lawyers said their clients were victims of government entrapment, tricked into self-incriminating acts, but had no intent to commit crimes. The claims were overruled, and the convicted men lost appeals. They resigned or were expelled from office. The Justice Department later revised its guidelines for undercover operations to avoid future controversies.
Melvin Weinberg was born in the Bronx, New York, on Dec. 4, 1924, to Harry Weinberg and the former Helen Jordon. He had two sisters, Marilyn and Sylvia. He attended Public School 86, in the Kingsbridge Heights neighborhood, but dropped out of Samuel Gompers Industrial High School for Boys, now closed, in the Bronx in his first year.
Weinberg joined the Navy in 1942 and was a Seabee in the Pacific in World War II. After the war, he went to work in his father’s store, which sold plate glass. He drummed up business by smashing or acid-staining nearby store windows.
He married Mary O’Connor in 1944. The marriage ended in divorce in 1962. In 1963 he married Cynthia Marie Regan. She committed suicide in 1982. He then married Evelyn Knight. They divorced in 1998.
He is survived by a son from his second marriage, Melvin Jr.; a daughter from his first marriage, Debbie Hughes; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Two other children from his first marriage, Richard Weinberg and Donna Wandel, died before him. In the 1960s and ‘70s, Weinberg prospered with his advance-fee con games for nonexistent loans. He used them in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Nevada, Tennessee and California. His victims included singer Wayne Newton and comedian Joey Bishop, who got “celebrity discounts.”
J. Karl Stark, a laundry owner in Pittsburgh, lost $3,750 to Weinberg in 1976, but said it was almost — though not quite — a privilege to be taken by him. “Oh, he was good,” Stark told The Times. “It was worth the money to watch him. He was very smooth. A real con artist.”
Weinberg’s luck appeared to run out in 1977. He was arrested on fraud and conspiracy charges, pleaded guilty in federal court in Pittsburgh and was sentenced to three years in prison. But, offering expertise the government needed at the time, he talked his way out of it. Within weeks the sentence was cut to probation, and Weinberg became a well-paid FBI undercover operative.
After the Abscam case, he worked as a private investigator in Miami for a dozen years. He retired in 1994. He later lived alone in Titusville. He always kept copies of the Abscam videotapes and said he enjoyed watching them occasionally until glaucoma caused his eyesight to begin failing.
Did he have any regrets? “Not really,” he said in a telephone interview for this obituary in 2017. “I’ve had a good life, a charmed life. I liked to gamble, but I’m blind and don’t gamble no more. I should have been dead a long time ago. I was around a lot of rough guys in my day, but they’re all gone now.”