BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

“… as long as there's a sucker …”

This one almost didn't make it into my cart up at the dollar store … a mix of it being a paperback (hardcovers survive the after-market so much better), having a near-hideous cover, and being touted as being the book on which a movie that I'd never heard of was based. Given that Robert W. Greene's The Sting Man: Inside Abscam was a quite interesting read, I'm glad that it got past my resistance. Since reading the book, I dug into the stuff around it, and discovered that American Hustle looks like a movie I should check out at some point (it has quite an impressive cast). It's also notable that this book originally came out way back in 1981, and was only resurrected by Penguin Books in 2013 when the movie premiered.

The main character here, Mel Weinberg (doubtful to ever be confused with Christian Bale, who plays him in the movie!), was a life-long criminal (a con artist into all sorts of scams across the globe in the 70's), who ended up being the engine that drove the Abscam investigation, which broke in February 1980.

One interesting thing is that this book came out as quickly as it did … Greene did 237 interviews with Weinberg in less than a year, plus had access to both government files and confiscated material in evidence, as well as the hours of videotape that were key to the prosecutions. The author, who died in 2008, was a well-established investigative journalist, who had even worked for the New York City Anti-Crime Committee in the early 50's. The recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes, he spent most of his career at Long Island's Newsday, where he built up quite a resume of impactful reports. Anybody who grows up in a major urban center suspects this, but it's also something of a hope … hard-boiled newspaper guys having a real connection with devoted denizens of the criminal underworld. In the Preface (one of the few places where Greene injects himself into the telling), there's this little gem to get things going:
I like Mel Weinberg. He is different. But, in many ways, he is more honest than many of the people that I know. And when he lies, he does it with verve.
Oh, one more thing to note … I only have one of my little bookmarks in here, and that in the introductory chapter at a point where all the subjects of Abscam are listed … so I'm going to be winging this with impressions from the reading, but there are so many amazing stories in here that I'm sure you'll be getting numerous random blockquotes foisted on you.

The book starts out with Weinberg's arrival to testify in court in August 1980 … it allows Greene to sketch out some basics (as Weinberg's waiting to be called in and mulling things over) of the main character's career, some of the key players on the FBI side, and a general arc of how things got to this point (including the listing of various politicians either indicted or implicated). This also is where the broad strokes are set in place regarding Weinberg:
Mel Weinberg does not look like the smooth, prototypical con man. He is squat, resembling a gray-bearded fireplug; a few strands of carefully arranged brown hair tenuously bridge his bald pate. He speaks with a gravelly voice in the rich accents of his native Bronx and he talks the slang of the underworld.

Weinberg was the difference. He had run every con game in the business for more than thirty-five years and had been arrested only once. He was a master of the sine qua non of the confidence world: the plausible story. He could talk his way into and out of any situation. He knew how to stall, cajole, inveigle and entice.
One thing to note about the book is that it uses some interesting format elements to bring in assorted bits of information. There are “SCENE” sections in the regular flow of the text that present a “snapshot” of a particular moment, which might be otherwise a bit of a non-sequitur, there are sections set in a different type which appear to be excerpts from the author's interviews (not just with Weinberg, there are some with FBI agents and other figures) which are broken out as “TAPE ONE” through eighteen, and then there are back-and-forth transcriptions from evidence tapes (both audio and video, I'm assuming) which just show up at appropriate points in the narrative. These all make for a richer read, if somewhat choppy at times.

I really liked that about the first third of the book covered Weinberg's delinquent youth through his growth into a high-grossing con man. Perhaps most charming of the early stories deal with glass – his dad had a small-time glass factory, that was always on the verge of bankruptcy. Weinberg had gotten into a deal with the local Glazier Union, where he'd go around at night, and bust out windows (with metal bolts shot with a slingshot from a moving car) at stores, etc. that had been installed by non-union workers. This little scam evolved into a various permutations, including stealing newly installed glass from construction sites – in one case talking his way out of being busted in the act so efficiently that he had the cops helping him load the sheets (that were the “wrong glass” that his boss insisted he fix “on his own time”, in the middle of the evening) onto his truck. He had another scam where he'd install a lesser glass (“demiglass”, that was polished on only one side) instead of what the clients paid for … his con here was to have had a bunch of stickers printed with “made in” and various countries identified – he'd match the country with the buyer's ethnicity and say something like “this is supposed to be the best glass there is”, and showing them where it was (supposedly) imported from – he claims that he never once had to replace it (while pocketing the difference). These cons eventually worked their way up the foodchain, and he was working with crooked (glass) insurance companies … the money from that went into investing into several legitimate businesses, including one where some of the partners were relatives of a major Mob figure. At one point, these partners decided they wanted Weinberg's part of the business:
“The mob plays for keeps,” Weinberg explained. “Smart con men stay on the good side of those fellas. If they want you to step away from something, you step away. Tomorrow's always another day; you keep on livin', and you can always go to them for a favor.”
The various permutations on the glass swindle eventually fell apart (although not until he'd played out a scenario with a cousin who was causing problems which involved a very large “enforcer” that Weinberg shot with blanks, got his cousin to come up with cash to pay folks to “make the body disappear”, and subsequently more money for “protection”), and he had to move into new ventures.

Weinberg always had at least one lady on the side, and in 1970 he met Diane, who was English, and had culture and taste that he found “impossible to define and imitate”, but he figured “if he couldn't be it, he'd own it” and convinced her to be his mistress. She must have liked him, as she took him back to England to meet her parents … on which trip his new career opened up. While there, he met an unnamed con man who “specialized in front-end schemes” where businesses looking for loans (but not able to get any legitimate banks to help), would find the con man, who'd offer to put through a loan application for a fee, depending on the size of the loan. This fee was supposed to cover research and reporting on the business and transfers with the banks. Weinberg ended up with a whole directory of fake banks in various locations around the world, which were usually just names and numbers – which would all go to a “bank” in some less-regulated country that wouldn't have more than a few thousand dollars of “deposits”, but would have a “Telex” (this was in a far different tech environment) and a person there to respond. The con was to stall as long as possible (a Weinberg specialty) before “the bank” responded with a letter regretfully declining the loan. There was another level of this, where the mark would be sold fake CDs, saying his company had X amount of funds on deposit with the fake bank, for a fee of 5-15% of the face value. This ended up putting the mark in the position of committing bank fraud, as he could take those CDs and use them to get local loans … in that earlier tech world, the local banks would typically just Telex the issuing “bank”, and be told that the mark, indeed, had that much on deposit there. Weinberg saw this as “a scheme of sheer beauty”, and jumped into it with enthusiasm.

So, “Swiss Bank Associates” was born, with “offices” in New York, London, and Zurich – the latter two being there not only for cachet, but that two top-tier hotels in those locations had a policy of taking messages for anybody, assuming that a guest had simply not as yet checked in. This worked like a charm, and Weinberg started clearing a quarter million a year (in 1970's dollars), after a lot of “business costs” to keep up appearances. He also didn't pay any taxes, as there wasn't any “there” there … the only physical presence was a phone line in the apartment he had set up for Diane, and he “kept all his records in his head”.

Eventually, this scam grew, and Weinberg aimed to be “the biggest”, with a permanent office, and “franchised agents” (con men in various ports of call) feeding business in. The name changed to London Investors … setting it up had cost him $70k, but he made that back in the first month. Aside from on-site staff, there were also paid-off cops working as limo drivers (to bring marks in from the airport or their NYC offices), and bugged limos and conference rooms. At this point the book runs through lots of “scenes” with fascinating looks at the array of scams he was running around the world.

One thing that seems a little odd is that, over the years, Weinberg had been acting as an occasional tip source for the FBI … which almost got him in trouble at one point … he was involved in a scam with the aging owner of a casino hotel in St. Martin, which ended up, through some convoluted turns, in Weinberg's name. A few days after the transfer, he gets a call from famed Mob figure Meyer Lansky, who informed him that he no longer owned the hotel, and he would be sending associates down to complete the deal … which involved Weinberg handing over the papers to an “obvious hoodlum”, who ripped them up and threw them on the floor. As in previous situations, Weinberg decided that living was the best option in some situations.

London Investors came to an abrupt halt in 1977 when one mark opted to be aggressive (being enraged at not getting his loan), and took the entire matter to the FBI and local prosecutors which led to Weinberg's one conviction (and a 3-year sentence). Because “Lady Diane” was a co-defendant in this, he didn't really fight the case, opting instead to get a deal where she was totally off the hook, with him pleading guilty (he insists that he could have beat the charges on his own). An interesting side-lite to this is in one of the “tapes”, which notes that he never sent stuff via the post office (using package courier services by the airlines), specifically to avoid mail-fraud charges!

The next chapter starts with profiling some of the FBI agents who were key parts of Abscam, and a case they were working on while Weinberg was in jail … they realized that the particulars of the investigation and Weinberg's skill set were a very good match, and both his previous tipsterism and his deal to save Diane appealed to the agents, so they reached out to him. Needless to say, he was very eager to help. The scam he was going to be developing in that case involved a phantom Arab, which eventually became Abdul of Weinberg's new Abdul Enterprises, and eventually the Ab in Abscam.

In March 1978, he was meeting with the FBI team, trying to come up with a theme for the sting:
… OPEC and oil still dominated the headlines and Weinberg's hint of ties with Arab investors over the past few months had brought the hustlers swarming. Weinberg suggested the idea of naming a specific Arab … he decided to use the name of the aging Arab millionaire he had befriended a year or so before … The original theme, quickly approved by {the FBI agents}, fleshed out over the following few months …
      The emphasis sometimes changed, but the basic version of the sting had Weinberg acting as the American agent of his old pal, millionaire Arab businessman Kambir Abdul Rahman … According to the scenario, Abdul, who supposedly resided in one of the Arab Emirates, when he wasn't living in Switzerland, Beirut or Cannes, was related to Arab royalty.
      Some targets of the scam were told that Abdul's money could not be loaned out at interest because of Islamic laws against usury. As a result, these marks were told, Abdul needed an unlimited supply of bogus certificates of deposit from offshore banks or forged certificates from legitimate banks. These certificates would be given by Abdul to his Moslem banks and he would then be able to withdraw cash equal to the face amount of the certificates and quickly invest the cash at interest elsewhere.
      Other targets were merely told that Abdul wanted to invest as much of his millions in the U.S. as possible because he felt it was only a matter of time before he would have to flee the wrath of his ripped-off citizenry. This version was used more often as the scam progressed and Weinberg promoted his friend Abdul to the ruling rank of Emir.
Between Weinberg and the FBI, they created a fairly air-tight background for “Abdul”, including depositing a million dollars in a Chase account, with an executive there who was privy to the scam, and would vouch for the wealth of the Arab, should targets get into deep due diligence (which many did). There were also letters from the State Department (ginned up by Weinberg – not sure if the FBI agents would have gotten involved with that) attesting to Abdul Enterprises working for the “Emir”.

One fallout from Abscam was the change in a lot of regulations for investigations of the kind … working with Weinberg was certainly a “grey area” in the law, although carefully keeping their toes on the “just legal” side of the line.
… like all great swindles, Abscam was an illusion built on careful attention to details, subtle presell and the target's own greed.
… Weinberg was widely known in the business as a crook and swindler. If he pretended to be anything else, he would raise suspicion. … He created the impression that he was hugely paid by Abdul and didn't want to do anything so outrageously crooked or disloyal that he would lose his cushy job. On the other hand, he let it be known, he was a crook at heart and wasn't averse to jacking up the price of something that he was purchasing for Abdul and splitting the difference privately either with the seller or the agent who set up the deal. The Arab, he said, would never notice an odd million here or there.
Honestly, the scam, as it grew, got too convoluted to really follow in the reading, and it's certainly not being condensed here. Suffice it to say, it went from a few specific corruption cases to a much wider net of public figures. One of these holds a fairly pivotal role, Camden, N.J. Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who became a close confidant and partner-in-crime with Weinberg … although never knowing that Weinberg was working with the FBI the whole time. Errichetti was one of those politicians who knows everyone and has his fingers into everything … in the transcription from Tape Eleven, Weinberg describes him:
He always looks relaxed, but his mind's goin' a mile a minute. He's got deals goin' all over the place and he's always lookin' for a new one.
Through him, the investigation got into the casinos, the unions, and dozens of corrupt governments all across New Jersey and surrounding areas. His contacts (and contacts of contacts) were key to getting in front of the Congressmen that ended up going to jail. As noted above, there were various twists on “the story” (they even set up another “Emir” to work a parallel and connected probe down in Florida), but the tale of Abdul wanting to come to the U.S. was central to most of the high-level work … as Weinberg and the FBI team would be presenting opportunities for personal and district gain if things were made easy for the “Emir” to get established in the U.S. As things progressed, the meetings were shifted (at the insistence of the FBI) to a townhouse in Georgetown they had set up for recording, etc. While this had a certain panache as the “Emir's” local pied-à-terre, Weinberg worried that somebody checking background might find that it had been being used by the Feds for a while in another investigation.

Anyway, lots and lots of crooked politicians, etc., took the bait, got videotaped accepting large payoffs, and ended up going to trial. Which brings us back to the start of the book. I don't even want to get into the complexities of the trials, but Weinberg's presence was a complicating element, as he was always what the defense attorneys focused on – although he took this as a personal challenge. There is also a nagging sub-theme (that never gets fully fleshed out) about the Newark FBI office which was constantly trying to sabotage the investigation – but the implication that they were affiliated with one or more of the targets (if not outright crooked on their own), is pretty clear.

As noted up top, The Sting Man initially came out way back in 1981 (and you can still get “good” used copies of that hardcover for about five and a half bucks delivered), but was re-released as a paperback in 2013 to support the movie. Oddly, this does appear to be out-of-print except for the ebook version, but you can get “like new” copies from the new/used guys for under five bucks delivered. I found this surprisingly engaging, and quite enjoyed the way the book was broken up with the assorted elements noted above. If you have an interest in crime, corruption, and the dank inner workings of a professional con, you should consider checking this out!

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