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It was through the recovery of stolen goods that Abscam started. It grew out of a rather routine undercover scheme in the New York area to recover stolen securities and paintings. In return for a favorable recommendation to reduce his sentence, FBI agents persuaded Mel Weinberg, a convicted swindler, to help them get thieves to resell their loot to the FBI'S fake fences. The agents used the ruse of claiming to represent a Middle East sheik interested in purchasing the stolen goods.
Informer Weinberg, however, held out a bigger prospect. He named two associates who, he claimed, had arranged shady deals with the mayor of Camden,
N.J., Angelo Errichetti. The undercover agents now sought guidance from their superiors on whether to follow Weinberg's leads into the complex field of political corruption. Neil Welch, the FBI's top man in New York City, readily approved. He had long wanted to press harder against white-collar crime. But Welch also needed higher approval, first from Francis M. ("Bud") Mullen Jr., a Washington superior in charge of all FBI investigations into white-collar and organized crime. Finally, Director Webster's approval was needed.
In March 1978 both officials gave their go-ahead.
With top level approval and ample funds now available, the FBI scam grew ever more elaborate. A swarthy agent, still unidentified, was picked to play the fictitious sheik, Kambir Abdul Rahman. Variously portrayed as being from Oman, Lebanon or the United Arab Emirates, the impostor set up temporary residence in a 62-ft. yacht that docked in several posh Florida marinas. As the flag vessel of the FBI'S secret fleet, the cruiser, seized by customs officials from marijuana smugglers, was first named the Left Hand and later the Corsair. "It gleamed with the predictable varnished parquet decks, teak panelingand a wide variety of eavesdropping and recording devices. The landlubberly FBI crew who manned it, however, promptly blew out one of its enginesand thereafter pretended to be in great fear of punishment from the all-powerful sheik.
At the same time, the FBI provided its sheik with a phony business front called Abdul Enterprises, with offices in an undistinguished modern office building on Long Island. More imaginatively, the agents acquired an expensive two-story colonial brick house in a fashionable area of Washington, B.C. It was rented, for $1,200 a month, from a reporter for the Washington Post who had been assigned temporarily to New York City. The agents furnished the first floor with expensive antiques borrowed from the Smithsonian Institution and spent some $25,000 on renovations. These included an elaborate alarm system (to protect the antique furniture, the reporter-landlord was told), new chandeliers, other lighting fixtures, and a false ceiling in the basementpresumably to conceal TV cameras and microphones. On a visit, the reporter found a locked door off the base ment recreation room.