Sanitizing Mel Weinberg and the Horrors of Abscam

A thirty year-old scandal is suddenly new again, as a film is currently being produced in Hollywood about Abscam, the FBI sting operation that resulted in one senator and six members of the House of Representatives being convicted of bribery and conspiracy. A key figure in both the scandal and the proposed film is Mel Weinberg, with the apparent intent of portraying him as a likable conman.

Back in 2006, I was the person who uncovered the 1980 John Murtha Abscam videotape. At the time, John Murtha (D-PA) was attempting to become House Majority leader, and after the release of the video, he was defeated in a landslide by Steny Hoyer (D-MD).

It took me six weeks of pursuing leads until I was given the name of someone who likely had a copy of the tape: Mel Weinberg. After tracking down Weinberg the following week, he immediately agreed to make the Murtha tape public, and I hoped he was doing it for the right reasons.

During the 1970's, Weinberg was both an FBI informant and con man, and by 1977 the government had given up on him. That fall he was convicted of ten counts of fraud, but before he went to prison, he was given one last chance, and with another FBI agent concocted a sting involving fictitious Arab sheiks which would eventually become Abscam.

The operation would ultimately lead to the congressional convictions, and Murtha, who was negotiating for his own deal on the tape, would agree to testify against two fellow members of Congress in order to escape prosecution.

Over time, I would come to find the real story behind Abscam. It included the fact that both the FBI and Justice Department determined that Weinberg had received part of a $100,000 bribe that was intended to be offered to New Jersey Casino Commissioner Kenneth MacDonald, and that the government chose to indict MacDonald in order to avoid coming clean about what they determined that Weinberg had done, and risk blowing the prosecutions.

In addition, Weinberg's wife Marie went public, eventually appearing in a devastating segment on ABC's 20/20, discussing both the bribe money and the fact that Weinberg had extorted gifts from some of the Abscam "middlemen" and had been lying under oath about those gifts. Others had also been making those same charges, and a bipartisan Senate report would later conclude that the allegations were true.

Even more stunning was the fact that Marie chose to take her own life after angry and demeaning public comments from Weinberg, as well as scurrilous stories that had been spread about her after she had decided to go public.

Marie, who suffered from diabetes as well as having grown up in foster homes (and never knowing her parents) had told journalist Indy Badhwar in the weeks prior to her death that both Weinberg and the FBI had been harassing and intimidating her and that Weinberg threatened that she would lose custody of their teenage adoptive son.

She had left a suicide note blaming Weinberg, and after her death in January of 1982, Weinberg's ugly comments continued. Plans at the time for a film to be made featuring Weinberg as a likable conman were quickly scuttled. But there are currently plans to produce another such film.

This time, the reclusive Oracle heiress Megan Ellison was approached for funding, and David O. Russell to direct. After I contacted representatives for both, it appears that they still intend to go forward. I recently obtained a copy of the original 134-page script (called the "Untitled David O.Russell project".) The script itself is spurious, with Kenneth MacDonald accepting a "bag of cash" and promising to deliver on a casino deal. Also in the plot, Weinberg has an amicable break-up with his wife "Estelle," even complimenting her at the film's conclusion. But at the center is Mel Weinberg as the roguish hero, just as he was in 1982.

Mr. Russell, who has a history of controversial behavior, including provoking a fistfight with George Clooney on the set of "Three Kings" and going into an obscenity laced rage against Lily Tomlin on the set of "I Heart Huckabees," has been rewriting the script along with Ms. Ellison. Russell has added imaginary plot lines, and recently called Weinberg a "sincere" person. But now they are forced to deal with the devastating 20/20 clips, including Marie's horrific suicide.

Russell has now cast a 22-year old Jennifer Lawrence to play "Marie Weinberg," who was fifty at the time of her death.  A close family member of the actress told WDRB-TV in Louisville that Lawrence will play Weinberg's "crazy wife," which in reality is a vicious smear that Weinberg has tried to propagate for years. Recent images from the set show "Marie" wearing expensive clothing and a wild 1960's bouffant hairdo.

Meanwhile, the production recently received millions of dollars in tax credits from the state of Massachusetts. In February, The Boston Herald reported they will soon begin filming in that city, and will take "artistic license with the facts."

The stain and scandal of Abscam has now spread from Hollywood to Boston, with none other than Mel Weinberg at its center.