Far from Seattle, a few thoughts on ‘American Hustle’

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Amerian Hustle

Jeremy Renner and Angelo J. Errichetti

In 1980, as a newspaper reporter on the Philadelphia Bulletin,  I appeared one day on a local “Meet The Press”-type TV show panel to ask questions of the guest. And it was quite a guest: Angelo J. Errichetti, the powerful mayor and state senator in Camden, N.J., the down-and-out city just across the Delaware River. He had just been caught in an FBI undercover sting operation taking a $25,000 cash bribe from an FBI informant and helping to arrange for various political associates–including a half-dozen Congressmen and a U.S. senator–to take bribes.  All of it videotaped, too.

Facing indictment in what was known as Operation Abscam, Errichetti couldn’t say much about the case. But at some point–I can’t remember if it was during the show taping or afterwards–I actually asked who should play him in the movie should one ever be made about the caper. As I recall, Errichetti chuckled, tried hard to think of someone, but couldn’t come up with a name.

Thirty-three years later, we have an answer. Veteran actor Jeremy Renner plays the Errichetti character in the new, well-acted movie “American Hustle,” which is based on Abscam. I’d say Errichetti got lucky, and not just because Renner is eight years younger than Errichetti was at the height of Abscam and better-looking while getting Errichetti’s Elvis-like hairdo down pat. The movie–astonishingly, to me–depicts Errichetti as a compassionate politician mainly concerned with generating jobs for people. The $25,000 cash he got in real life to influence peddle? Oh that.

Give me a break.

Even before Abscam, the profane, colorful, chain-smoking Errichetti I remember presided over a terribly corrupt political machine full of graft and flunkies in an aging industrial city going down for the count. One of his ward leaders personally threatened me with violence for investigative stories about the lackey’s quaint practice of occasionally being paid by the hour for two government jobs at the very same hour, one of those jobs being with Errichetti’s city government.  Errichetti himself was no stranger to the criminal legal process, having been acquitted in an earlier trial of official misconduct concerning public bidding laws.

As for the the movie’s narrative of Errichetti (renamed Carmine Polito) trying to do the right thing for his poor constituents, I can do no better than offer the summary of Errichetti in The Sting Man, Robert W. Greene’s extremely detailed 1981 book about Abscam:

The Mayor offered or gave Abscam agents hot diamonds, guns and munitions, forged CDs, counterfeit money, stolen paintings, leasing contracts, municipal garbage contracts, unregistered boats for dope-running, use of Port Camden as a narcotics depot, Atlantic City zoning changes, a list of 13 bribable state and city officials, the vice-chairman of the State Casino Control Commission, the Chairman of the New Jersey State Democratic Committee and, directly or indirectly, five United States Congressmen and a Senator.

Now, before going further, I should note there’s no New To Seattle angle here other than, perhaps, that I saw the movie in Seattle. But every once in a while I write here about far-flung events when I have something to say. Last year around July 4, I recounted the curious history of homage to the revolutionary leader Thomas Paine in the New York suburb of New Rochelle. Earlier this year, I fumed again about all the prominent media outlets and hero worshipers who repeatedly misspell the name of the commander of Texas’s Alamo–it is similar to mine–while leaving out some of his unsavory history.

From the standpoint of reality, the producers of “American Hustle” try to have it both ways. At the beginning appears this language: “Some of this actually happened.” But the credits at the end include the standard boilerplate that the events are fictional and any resemblance to a real person is coincidental. Another reason to be suspicious of stuff written by paid lawyers.

Still, the broad outline of the 138-minute-long movie is true. As does the movie, the real-life Abscam involved–bizarrely–a Latino FBI agent playing an Arab sheik offering money mainly to get in on Atlantic City casino development and other business ventures requiring government approval while resolving supposed immigration problems. Helping the real FBI was a veteran convicted conman named Mel Weinberg trying to stay out of jail after getting nailed running his own advance-fee fraud on Long Island.

In the movie Weinberg (renamed Irv Rosenfeld and played by Christian Bale) also is caught between his glamorously smart mistress, Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is his full accomplice in crime, and his glamorously ditzy wife, Rosalyn (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who isn’t. At the end of the movie Rosalyn gets an amicable divorce and goes off with a mobster.

Really? Here’s what happened in real life: Weinberg’s estranged wife, Marie, was found dead in 1982, two years after Abscam broke. Authorities ruled it suicide; she had left behind a note accusing Weinberg of harassment and abuse. (Weinberg, who is still alive at age 89 and living in Florida, reportedly was a consultant to the movie, which might account for the altered portrayal of his ex from whip-smart to slightly unstable.) In real life, Weinberg did have a mistress helping him with his earlier cons, but she wasn’t really part of Abscam.

According to Greene’s book and testimony at ensuing trials, it was Errichetti who first said his fee for helping “the sheik” get a casino license was $25,000 up front and $400,000 down the road–a $1.5 million package in today’s dollars. With the secret cameras rolling, Errichetti took the $25,000–stuffed in two envelopes–at a Long Island office on January 29, 1979.

In the movie the Errichetti character balks at taking the money and storms out of the room, forcing the Weinberg character to chase after him and lure him back. But that’s not how it really happened in real life. As the video clearly showed, Errichetti easily took the money from role-playing FBI agents after he outlined the terms of what he would do. Weinberg wasn’t even present; he was in Florida that day.

Errichetti was the very first politician to take a bribe in Abscam. The feds essentially played him for a simple sucker as he unwittingly led them to many of the other targets, often long-time friends.

That Errichetti got caught with his hand way out did not come as a terrible surprise to reporters like me who had been covering him, especially in Camden County, N.J. After all, it was a place so notoriously corrupt that the county board of elections had been headed by a convicted felon who was an Errichetti man. Son of Italian immigrants, Errichetti had just a high school education but developed into a charismatic, accomplished politician, a white guy elected and easily reelected in a city with a majority of blacks and Latinos.

But what was surprising was the street-smart Errichetti’s gullibility in falling for the scam, not, it seems, doing much at all to check out the people he had been doing business with. Without Errichetti opening doors–and displaying easy familiarity with known mobsters–the feds wouldn’t have gotten very far in their investigation, which eventually resulted in conviction of 19 people.

I suppose the sugar-coating of Errichetti in “American Hustle” also was part of an effort by director David O. Russell, who wrote the script with Eric Warren Singer, to add some humanity to the con-man character played by Bale and make for a better tale. In reel life, an anguished Bale goes to Errichetti’s home to reveal the scam as the feds are closing in. Watching from the staircase are maybe five children of Errichetti. In real life, I’m pretty sure Weinberg never confessed anything to Errichetti. But in any event my recollection is that Errichetti had only one kid.

The movie shows the FBI agent running the scam (played by Bradley Cooper) making a play for Bale’s mistress. Also sheer fiction.

The movie dialogue says the Bale conman character was instrumental in getting Errichetti’s eventual sentence cut from three years to 1 1/2 years, which suggests Errichetti pleaded guilty. From what I know, nothing of the sort took place. Errichetti was convicted only after multiple, bitterly fought jury trials during which he–understandably, given all the videotape evidence against him–did not take the witness stand in his own defense even as his lawyers unsuccessfully argued he was entrapped by overreaching lawmen. Errichetti was sentenced to a total of six years in federal prison but, under the lenient parole rules then in effect, later released after 32 months.

The passage of time certainly can dull memory. Errichetti died earlier this year at age 84. The local obituaries that I saw noted his convictions and incarceration. But they glossed over or simply left out almost all the gritty detail of his corruption–especially his mob ties, which, laudably, do make up part of “American Hustle,” most notably in a memorable bit played by an Arabic-speaking Robert DeNiro.

The obituary in The Philadelphia Inquirer–now controlled, amazingly, by two former political allies of Errichetti, one of whom once even served as his criminal-defense lawyer–asserted that Errichetti’s $25,000 bribe was partly to pull strings for a construction project on the “Camden seaport.” To the unknowing, that might make Errichetti’s actions seem at least a little bit high-minded. But while Errichetti clearly had a political and even personal interest in bringing jobs to Camden, there wasn’t much talk about that in the Abscam tapes played at the many trials. Almost all the bribe money sloshing around was for projects in Atlantic City, which is 60 miles from Camden, or adjoining Philadelphia.

At Errichetti’s passing, even the City of Camden lowered flags to half-staff. But then again, ex-Camden mayors with, ah, convictions have become something of a grand municipal tradition. Errichetti was the first in a trio of Camden chief executives who in separate scandals would be found guilty of federal crimes. For the next based-on-reality political movie about Camden, it’s too bad the Three Stooges aren’t available.

UPDATE on 2/19/2014: I invite those defenders of Errichetti who continue against all evidence to insist he was a good guy devoted to the good of mankind to read this recent Philadelphia Inquirer column about how he suckered one of his good friends on Abscam and probably caused his premature death. The friend was the father of one of my high school classmates.

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Far from Seattle, a few thoughts on ‘American Hustle’ — 3 Comments

  1. Jeff, the first bribe that Errichetti took was for influence-peddling, particularly concerning his good friend, Ken MacDonald, vice chairman of the Casino Control Commission (and a former mayor of my home town). After a later bribe paid with MacDonald in the room, MacDonald got indicted with Errichetti, but MacDonald died of stomach cancer (at a young age 59) before he could be tried, claiming to the end he didn’t know what Errichetti had been up to. Errichetti got convicted several times, mainly for his role in facilitating bribes to members of Congress to influence legislation.

  2. Thanks, Bill, for your Hollywood vs. reality take on American Hustle. Obviously, script trumps reality, but it never really explained how bribing the mayor of Camden was going to get the sheiks permits in AC. Wouldn’t they have to bribe AC officials, too?
    If writing this piece made you nostalgic for NJ sleaze, I recommend “The Jersey Sting: A True Story of Crooked Pols, Money-Laundering Rabbis, Black Market Kidneys, and the Informant Who Brought It All Down”
    By Ted Sherman, Josh Margolin

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