ABSCAM SCANDAL. A Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sting operation stemming from a 1978 investigation of stolen paintings and organized crime uncovered corruption among elected officials on the local, state, and national levels. Because a U.S. senator and several congressmen were implicated, Abscam (short for "Arab Scam") further promoted widespread public cynicism about the integrity of federal lawmakers. Conversely, the operation led to severe criticism of the FBI for targeting members of Congress and otherwise engaging in entrapment. FBI undercover agents masqueraded as wealthy Arab sheiks and offered bribes for assistance with such matters as obtaining gambling licenses. Videotape caught politicians accepting large amounts of cash or stock. Department of Justice officials approved Abscam in 1978 and terminated it in early 1980 after the news media became aware of the program. Congressional leaders charged that the department had in fact prematurely leaked the names of suspects to television and print reporters. While promising a thorough investigation of any such leaks, Attorney General Benjamin R. Civiletti nevertheless refused to cooperate with the parallel congressional investigations. Instead, the attorney general had prosecutors concentrate on the cases to be presented before grand juries in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. Those efforts resulted in the bribery convictions of former New Jersey senator Harrison A. Williams and six former members of the House of Representatives. The Abscam scandal marked the first of several major corruption scandals in Congress in the 1980s, the most notorious of which was the "Keating Five" savings and loan scandal, which implicated prominent senators.
Greene, Robert W. The Sting Man: Inside Abscam. New York: Dutton, 1981.
U.S. Congress, Senate, Select Committee to Study Law Enforcement Undercover Activities of Components of the Department of Justice. Final Report. Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1983.