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American Hustle, Abscam, and What it Means to America

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The movie American Hustle seems to be getting all the top movie awards this year. It is a very timely reminder of the almost-forgotten Abscam scandal that sent several members of Congress and one US Senator to jail. And even more forgotten is the small role I played in turning down a bribe in the Abscam matter. Nobody in the movie turns the bribe down, so I've been doubly forgotten! Thus in writing this I feel a little bit like the little boy in class after the teacher scolds everyone for being naughty who runs up and says, "But I was a good boy!"

American Hustle reminds us of how dominant corrupt money has become in Washington, DC. I am now embarked on a Independent campaign for the US Senate based on reform, a low-budget campaign, and a belief that the poisonous partisan rift between Republicans and Democrats in Washington is largely caused by big corrupt money. First, let me briefly tell you my Abscam story.

In the fall of 1979, shortly after I concluded my dark-horse candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination, a prominent Washington, D.C. socialite, who was serving as one of my volunteer fundraisers, informed me that some wealthy people were eager to meet me and talk about contributing to my campaign deficit.

As a relatively unknown first-term senator from South Dakota, I had few deep-pocketed supporters, and so I jumped at the chance to follow up on my fundraiser's promising lead. However, since it was illegal for a member of Congress to discuss fundraising on federal property, I agreed to meet the prospective donors in a home they were renting a short distance from the Capitol.

On the appointed day, we arrived at a two-story redbrick colonial home on fashionable W Street. Inside, the house was furnished with exquisite antiques, elegant chandeliers and, as I would later learn, a battery of hidden television cameras and microphones. Unwittingly, my inexperienced fundraiser had led me into a hornets' nest-- the most elaborate undercover sting operation ever launched by the FBI.

It was codenamed Abscam, and it involved months of hard work by more than one hundred FBI agents in an elaborate series of hoaxes and disguises. One of the FBI imposters I met that day was a swarthy man who appeared to be from the Middle East. He told me that he represented a prominent sheik who was seeking entry to the United States for himself and a number of his associates and who needed special bills passed by Congress to allow them to avoid the usual immigration procedures.

He then offered to make an under-the-table payment if I would play ball.

"Wait a minute!" I said. "What you are suggesting may be illegal. I would never do anything in exchange for a campaign contribution."

And with that, I stormed out of the house.

It wasn't until a couple of months later, when the Abscam story burst onto the front pages of the Washington Post, that I learned the full scope of the FBI sting.

My secretly recorded Abscam videotapes were played on national TV, and for a time I was hailed as a "hero." Syndicated cartoonist Jim Berry drew a caricature of me being greeted by the Greek philosopher Diogenes, who famously carried a lantern throughout the ancient world searching for an honest man. "Senator Pressler?" read the caption under Berry's cartoon. "I am Diogenes. I've been looking for you."

My short moment of fame got another boost when Walter Cronkite singled me out for praise on the CBS Evening News, and concluded with my quote, "What have we come to if turning down a bribe is considered heroic?"

The Washington Post ran a front-page story about the "special moment in which Sen. Larry Pressler (R-SD) tells the undercover agent, in effect, to take their sting and stick it." The tributes continued to pile up. My former Professor Alan Dershowitz used me as an exemplar of civic virtue in his Harvard Law School class. And District Judge George C. Pratt who reviewed the Abscam cases when they came up for appeal, gave a quote that I will proudly take to my grave: "Pressler, particularly, acted as citizens have a right to expect their elected representatives to act. He showed a clear awareness of the line between proper and improper conduct, and despite his confessed need for campaign money, and despite the additional attractiveness to him of the payment offered, he nevertheless refused to cross into impropriety."

Later, when the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Ethics reviewed my involvement in Abscam, it sent me a letter stating that my rejection of the Abscam scheme was "immediate, forthright and unequivocal.... In this test of integrity, your action upheld the honor of the United States Senate."

Yet, in spite of all the accolades, I didn't feel like a hero. On the contrary, I was deeply embarrassed by the attention I received during that brief period. But then it was suddenly over. I was dropped from public memory, and my turning down the bribe has seldom been mentioned since. My stage went dark. However, Abscam remained in the news big time regarding those who took the bribe and what happened to them. It is etched in American history as a sleazy bribery scandal, but it does not mention that one public official turned the bribe down. Perhaps that is too unbelievable. The movie American Hustle leaves the impression that everyone offered money eagerly took it. It is as though I did not exist. This does not bother me, as I think it is illustrative of the fact that everyone just assumes all Washington is crooked. This is not true, as there are many dedicated public servants in Congress and the bureaucracy. They carry on every day in a very honest and ethical fashion. Although they do not get credit or they are not remembered for it, their ethics are what cause our great country to survive.

I am now engaged in an idealistic campaign for the US Senate as an Independent. If elected, I pledge to serve only one term, because I would not want to get back into the big fundraising efforts US Senators have to do. Many US Senators spend up to half their time raising money, and that means going out of their offices, either into their cars to use their cellphone or an apartment off Capitol Hill, so they are off of federal property, to make endless fundraising calls and to meet with PACs. I have told my supporters that I would only go back to the US Senate if I could serve six glorious years without having to a dime or campaign for the next term. I have already been a US Senator for three terms - I have "been there, done that," but I would love to serve again if the fundraising were taken out.

American Hustle leaves the impression that everybody is on the take, and I guess it's true. American Hustle, like American society, does not recognize the Senator or the folks who did the right thing, but relishes in this sea of corruption. Thus the movie American Hustle probably reflects what we have really become - a sleazy, corrupt nation. I hope it wakes us up. As Upton Sinclair's novels forced social change, perhaps American Hustle will shock us into some real reform.