Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard


How the FBI flipped a con man and snared pols in a bribery sting

IT IS THE MOST famous - and felonious - epigram in the long and storied history of Philadelphia political-corruption scandals.

"Money talks, bulls--- walks," former U.S. Rep. Michael "Ozzie" Myers said while discussing a bribe with representatives of Arab sheikh Yasser Habib at a motel near Kennedy International Airport in New York in 1979.

Myers, who left that meeting with $50,000 in an envelope, and 18 other government officials would soon learn they had three serious problems.

Habib was no sheik. His representatives were FBI agents. And the hotel room was wired with video cameras for the operation that became known as Abscam, which inspired David O. Russell's "American Hustle."

The sting that shocked the nation started in 1977 when the FBI flipped a New York con man, Mel Weinberg, and used him as a front man for the so-called sheik's phony firm, Abdul Enterprises.

Elected officials in several states took bribes, promising favors for the sheik's business. Their crimes were captured on grainy, black-and-white video.

Three Philadelphia City Councilmen, including Council President George X. Schwartz, were swept up in 1980 with Myers, New Jersey's U.S. Sen. Harrison Williams and others. (Philadelphia politicians do not factor into Russell's film, though a fictional Camden mayor does.)

Peter Vaira, who was U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, says Abscam could have snared more corrupt officials if it had not been so "freewheeling." The operation was run jointly from several jurisdictions.

"It was a big operation, not run from Washington or a central spot," Vaira said. "It made a big splash. Could we have gotten more people? Sure. When you hand out money to city officials, you're going to get them."

Abscam set off a national debate about whether the FBI went too far, entrapping officials.

The operation was part of the reason the U.S. Department of Justice developed internal guidelines and practices for undercover operations, Vaira said.