Known as Abscam, the unorthodox operation employed hidden cameras, a controversial con man, and agents costumed as Arab "sheikhs." The stark, black-and-white video clips of politicos on the take made for sensational television, and nearly a dozen elected officials later were convicted on corruption charges.
But in April 1982, before he got a chance to defend himself at trial, MacDonald succumbed to stomach cancer. He was 59.
"Abscam," Kevin MacDonald says, "destroyed my father's will to live."
The story of the sting had largely been forgotten until the recent release of American Hustle, the movie it (very) loosely inspired. The hit film is mostly fiction and makes no reference to Ken MacDonald, but after seeing it, his son reached out to me.
"I have no doubt that my father was innocent," Kevin MacDonald declares.
Ken MacDonald grew up in modest circumstances, served with distinction in World War II, and built a successful career in business, politics, and public service.
"He was one of the most decent guys I have ever met," says Bill Reynolds, 75, who got to know MacDonald as a fellow Haddonfield borough commissioner and Rotary Club member in the 1970s.
Reynolds recalls that after his indictment, "Ken walked into Rotary, and I immediately went up to him and said, 'Come sit at our table.' He got tears in his eyes."
Says former Haddonfield Mayor Jack Tarditi, 73, a close friend of the MacDonald family: "Ken would never have been involved in anything untoward. He was too principled. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Kevin MacDonald, 57, is a mortgage banker and the father of two grown children. People say he looks just like his dad.
"My father didn't have a dishonest bone in his body," the Haddonfield resident and longtime JFK-memorabilia collector says. "I have no doubt he was somehow duped into this."
The sting also ensnared an old friend of Ken MacDonald, Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti (the inspiration for the American Hustle character played by Jeremy Renner).
The flamboyant urban mayor and the shy suburban businessman may have seemed unlikely chums, but the two had known each other in Camden, where MacDonald ran the Esterbrook Pen company and both were active with the Jaycees.
Years later, as a state senator, Errichetti nominated MacDonald to the Casino Control Commission, subsequently introducing him to investors (actually, FBI agents) interested in casino hotel development in Atlantic City.
And in March 1979, Errichetti invited MacDonald, who was recently widowed, to accompany him on a supposed business trip to Long Island.
FBI video shows the two men in an office with an undercover FBI agent. When Errichetti picks up and prepares to leave with a briefcase containing $100,000 in cash, MacDonald stands silently on the opposite side of the room.
Kevin MacDonald, who has studied the tape, says his father seems stunned by what happens.
"Errichetti [later] provided an affidavit confirming that no money was ever given to Ken MacDonald," says the elder MacDonald's attorney, Justin Walder.
From his office in Roseland, Essex County, Walder adds that the Camden mayor divided the $100,000 with the con man, Mel Wineberg. MacDonald, he says, "was not involved in any criminal conduct."
Errichetti was convicted and served nearly three years in federal prison. He died last year.
"I met with Errichetti several times," Kevin MacDonald says. "He was a charming guy, and the first time I sat down with him he knew what I wanted to ask.
"He said: 'Kevin, I want to tell you something. Your father was an honorable man. He had no knowledge of what was going on.' "
Kevin MacDonald says he already knew that. But it was what he needed to hear.