'American Hustle' more fiction than fact, say Abscam players

In 1980 (from left), FBI agent Anthony Amoroso talks with U.S. Rep. Michael Myers, Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, and Mel Weinberg.
In 1980 (from left), FBI agent Anthony Amoroso talks with U.S. Rep. Michael Myers, Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, and Mel Weinberg. (AP)
Posted: March 19, 2014

'It was a guy thing," says Paul R. Rosen. "Not a woman near it."

The movie American Hustle is a far cry from the real Abscam sting and trials. Just ask those who were actually involved. Many are still around, and several have seen the movie. It got skunked at the Oscars, but the DVD comes out Tuesday, and it's in line for a big night at the MTV Movie Awards on April 13.

"I think if there was an Amy Adams or a Jennifer Lawrence around," Rosen says, "I would have remembered."

Rosen was defense attorney for Philadelphia lawyer Howard Criden, convicted of bribery and conspiracy related to Abscam, the FBI cash-for-political-favors sting that eventually led to the 1981 convictions of a host of politicians. "This was all about powerful white men taking valises full of cash. No discos, no dancing. Made it look fun, though."

Among those who have seen Hustle, reviews are mixed. Rosen calls it "enjoyable." Former South Dakota Sen. Larry Pressler - who turned down bribes on videotape, and, by the way, is running again for his old seat - calls it "a good night at the movies, with some good humor, and it brought back a few memories."

It did for Michael "Ozzie" Myers, too. He is a former Pennsylvania House representative who served three years in prison for an Abscam conviction. He says that it was strange watching the movie, but that "it was an enjoyable show - total fiction, of course, but it caught the general flavor of it."

Others, such as Peter F. Vaira, head U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania at the time, who assembled and spearheaded "the Philly piece" of the Abscam indictments, call it "absolute farce, totally unrealistic."

All agree with the card starting the film: "Some of this actually happened." With stress on the some .

"The movie's amusing, but irrelevant to the Philadelphia piece of the case," says Joseph M. Fioravanti, who, as prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney's Office here, did work, as he says, that "largely postdated events of American Hustle ."

The "Philadelphia piece" of Abscam began only after sting operations had begun in New York and elsewhere. "When they started indicting Pennsylvania people, I wanted a piece of it," Vaira says. "The FBI says, 'All right, we'll lend you the fake sheikh and this con man, Mel Weinberg, for a week.' "

Yes, there were a sting, a fake sheikh, a fake hotel, and a real con man. And notorious videos of pols accepting (and, in Pressler's case, and that of then-U.S. Rep. John Murtha, rejecting) cash for favors. The 1981 convictions included one U.S. senator (Harrison Williams of New Jersey), six House members, Camden Mayor and N.J. State Sen. Angelo Errichetti, the head and other members of the Philadelphia City Council, and an immigration official.

Like most movies, American Hustle weaves slim threads of truth into a wild yarn. The character of Irving Rosenfeld is based on con man Weinberg, a main source for cowriter Eric W. Singer's draft script. Vaira and Fioravanti don't think much of that. "They relied a little too much on Weinberg's account of things," Fioravanti says. "We had a much cleaner case without him, frankly."

"Just a con man, that's all he was," says Vaira, "and he was out of the way after the very beginning."

Weinberg's English lady friend, Evelyn Knight, wasn't involved. Yet she becomes the explosive Sydney Prosser, played by Adams. So . . . no women.

And no Robert DeNiro.

What, no mob? "I don't know what DeNiro was doing there," Rosen says. "I recall no mob involvement, at least in our part of things," says Fioravanti.

Old oppositions and resentments surface. Myers says. "We were not criminals, and no one in Abscam, certainly not me, was disposed to criminal activity. This was not for the purposes of justice but to further the career of some ambitious federal prosecutors. Why would you entrap these people? The tragic thing is, why would you think I, or [then-U.S. Rep. John M. Murphy of New York], one of the most decorated military men in Congress, was a criminal?"

David Marston, who was fired as U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania by President Jimmy Carter in 1978, calls American Hustle "entertaining and well done." (His firing, never fully explained, was seen largely as political - Carter being a Democrat and Marston a Republican. He was replaced by Vaira.)

Marston and Rosen see merit in the film's portrayal of politicians who, while corrupt, still believe they are serving their constituents. "The good-government side" of Carmine Polito, based on Errichetti, "rings true," says Marston. "Angelo clearly did believe he was really helping his people," says Rosen. "In Philadelphia, they thought they were energizing the city with new development, but they all ended up in the feeding frenzy."

But Fioravanti says, "I don't believe it. These guys were used to going around with their hands out. They weren't doing anything for any constituents."

 Marston sees Abscam as "a real turning point in this country. You had Watergate, and the social debate over political corruption; you had the RICO statutes; and you had the change of command at the FBI when [J. Edgar] Hoover stepped down." Atmosphere and attitudes changed. Methods once used mostly with mobsters now were turned toward politicians.

Vaira dismisses the significance of his part in Abscam: "We knew the situation around here was fertile for an operation like this. We knew that if we put the right people together with people they thought had money, they could be bought."

"It shattered any faith I had in human nature, that people would take those kinds of bribes," says Pressler. "I thought at the time it would change things, but the same bribery goes on legally today through PACs" - political action committees, which use money to influence campaigns. "That's part of the reason I'm running as an independent again after 18 years away, because I'm tired of that."

(In South Dakota, Pressler ran two 30-second local American Hustle-themed ads during the Oscars broadcast, reminding viewers of his principled refusals.)

"We were both just amazed by it all - the lack of sophistication of those we caught," Vaira says. "They weren't even good crooks. They were so used to holding their hands out."

Marston says, "It was like shooting fish in a barrel. And, while the movie isn't accurate about very much, that's something it does present well - the level of greed out there at the time. The number of officials willing to grab at money if it was there. Amazing."

Vaira says Fioravanti would call "and he'd say, 'You know what these dumb guys did today? You won't believe what they took and what they said.' "

As for the movie? "Now, On the Waterfront , that was a great piece of storytelling, great direction, great conflict, big issues," says Vaira. "This isn't one of those."


jt@phillynews.com

215-854-4406 @jtimpane

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