The new movie “American Hustle”, the Martin Scorsese comedy loosely based on the 1970s Abscam scandal, evoked memories in NAFUSA member Hickman Ewing, shown above with his wife, Mary, at the NAFUSA conference in Washington. Ewing served on the Attorney General’s leak investigation team in the 1970s, along with NAFUSA Executive Director Rich Rossman. Ewing writes:
Starting in the 1970’s some U.S. Attorney’s Offices made efforts to begin using the federal statutes to combat corruption in state, federal, and local government. WD Tennessee was in the forefront of this.
The FBI came along, but in the beginning wanted to concentrate more on “stats” (statistics based on volume of cases) rather than invest lots of time and manpower into undercover investigations which might not result in prosecutions in the end.
By Mike Cody’s time as U.S. Attorney, they were getting the hang of it. In about 1978, 3 districts (FBI, USAO) were recognized as doing the most in corruption – ED PA (Philadelphia), ND IL (Chicago), and WD TN (Memphis).
The ABSCAM investigation did not touch Tennessee per se. It was run out of Washington DC, NY, NJ. At the same time there were two other major federal undercover investigations. One was code named BRILAB (Bribery-Labor), and the other PENDORF (involving Nevada, organized crime, and elected officials).
Early in 1980 the ABSCAM investigation got leaked to the media. The Department of Justice and FBI responded quickly to try and find the leakers. They wanted to take the position before the courts where the congressmen were going to be prosecuted that this was not an intentional orchestrated leak which would require dismissal.
Because it was so widespread, the normal OPR (Office of Professional Responsibility) of both the DOJ and the FBI were not staffed adequately to handle it.
The Attorney General (Benjamin Civiletti) called on the then U.S. Attorney from Connecticut Dick Blumenthal (now a senator from that state) to come to Washington and head up the leak investigation. Dick had been a Washington Post reporter before his legal career. He was given an office at DOJ. He worked closely with John Otto, who was the head of the FBI OPR.
Two First Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSA’s) were brought in to assist him with the ABSCAM leak investigation: Rich Rossman from Detroit and Jerry O’Neill from Vermont. An extra FBI supervisor and 10 experienced agents rounded out that leak investigation team.
** Now how it touched us – Shortly after the ABSCAM investigation leaked, the BRILAB investigation leaked – it covered many more cities than ABSCAM. Dick Blumenthal called his colleague Mike Cody. On a break from court, Mike told me [Ewing was Cody’s first assistant at the time] that Dick had asked if I would be interested in being the AUSA to help on the BRILAB leak investigation. I was told that it would take 4-6 weeks. I went to Washington DC at the end of Feb 1980. Dick asked me to look at the materials and recommend to him how much manpower we would need. I recommended that we have another First AUSA, and FBI supervisor, and 10 field agents. Bill Skretny, the First AUSA from Buffalo NY became my investigating partner.
It took us about seven months to complete our part – as we travelled to Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston, Dallas, San Antonia, Oklahoma City, New Orleans (Carlos Marcello was involved), Mobile, and Washington DC. We interviewed in excess of 1,000 people, including FBI, AUSA’s, judges, etc. Among those I remember, all of whom were without fault, were: the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles Andrea Ordin, and then AUSA Ron Woods in Houston. We did not interview or try to talk with any of the reporters in question. I remember who they were.
[Richard Stephens, First AUSA in Dallas came in later to head the PENDORF leak investigation]
Though we did not investigate the ABSCAM matter per se, there were lots of common “subjects” of the leak investigations, especially at the DOJ/FBI Washington DC level. We asked a number of government employees – FBI, DOJ, USAO, etc – to take polygraphs. We pretty well figured it all out and made reports to the Attorney General. He and the Director of the FBI determined the discipline.
Rossman became U.S. Attorney in Michigan at some point, served in the DOJ during the Clinton administration, and is now the director of the National Association of Former U.S. Attorneys (Mike and I just saw him in Washington at the end of Sept. 2013). Bill Skretney became a U.S. District Judge in Buffalo.
You know the rest of our stories.
Blessings, and happy new year,