The investigation ultimately led to the conviction of a United States Senator, five members of the House of Representatives, one member of the New Jersey State Senate, members of the Philadelphia City Council, and an inspector for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Much of the operation was directed by Melvin Weinberg, a convicted con artist, who was hired by the FBI for that purpose. It was the first major operation by the FBI to trap corrupt public officials; up until 1970 only ten members of Congress had ever been convicted of accepting bribes.
On February 2, 1980, NBC Nightly News became the first media outlet to break the story that FBI personnel were targeting members of Congress in a sting operation. The FBI had codenamed the operation "Abscam," a contraction of "Abdul scam"; after the name of the company.
Senator Harrison "Pete" Williams (D-NJ) was indicted on October 30, 1980 and convicted on May 1, 1981 on nine counts of bribery and conspiracy to use his office to aid in business ventures. Harrison repeatedly met with the FBI agents, and had worked out a deal where he would become involved in a titanium mining operation by way of having 18% of the company's shares issued to his lawyer, Alexander Feinberg. Williams then promised to steer government contracts to the venture by using his position in the Senate.
At his trial, lawyers for Mr. Williams argued that the Senator had not actually been bribed because the stock in the titanium mining company was worthless. Other defenses attempted to have the charges dismissed included that he was a victim of selective prosecution by the Justice Department because he had supported the presidential bid of Ted Kennedy over Jimmy Carter in the Democratic Primary. These premises were not accepted by the jury, who convicted Mr. Williams after 28 hours of deliberation on May 1, 1981. Later appeals made by Mr. Williams included arguments that a main prosecution witness had perjured himself and that the Senator had been a victim of entrapment. The guilty verdict was upheld, and the Senator was sentenced to 3 years in prison for his crimes.
Because of the convictions, the Senate Ethics Committee voted to censure Senator Williams and put a motion to the floor to expel the Senator for charges of bringing dishonor upon their house of Congress and his "ethically repugnant behavior." Supporters of Williams moved that the censure was enough, and that the expulsion was unnecessary. The Senate voted to censure Mr. Williams, but before the vote on his expulsion could occur, Senator Williams resigned his seat in the Senate. In his resignation speech, the Senator proclaimed his innocence and argued that the investigation into his activities was a grievous assault on the rights of the Senate, and that the other senators should be wary of unchecked investigations into their activities by other branches of the government.
Mr. Williams served two years of his three year sentence at a federal penitentiary in Newark, New Jersey. He served the remainder of his term at the Integrity House halfway house, where he became a member of the board of directors until his death by cancer on November 17, 2001. He also attempted to receive a presidential pardon from President Bill Clinton, but his request was denied.
Williams was the first Senator to be imprisoned in almost 80 years, and had the expulsion motion been approved, would have been the first Senator to be expelled from the Senate since the Civil War.
Congressman John Murtha (D-PA) was one of the Congressmen videotaped in an encounter with undercover FBI operatives. Although never indicted or prosecuted, he was named an "unindicted co-conspirator" in the scandal. As such, he testified against Frank Thompson (D-NJ) and John Murphy (D-NY), the two Congressmen mentioned as participants in the deal at the same meeting. A short clip from the videotape shows Murtha stating "I'm not interested, I'm sorry. At this point..." in direct response to an offer of $50,000 in cash.
While this statement has been a reference point for Murtha and others who proclaim his innocence, detractors point to the complete video, which offers a more ambiguous picture. At issue are the indeterminacy of Murtha's intentions along with the fact that he did not report the attempted bribe following the meeting, a violation of House Ethics Rules. Murtha was also taped saying, "You know, we do business for a while, maybe I'll be interested..." - causing many to question what role he may have played had the operation not been ended early due to media exposure.
In November 1980, the Justice Department announced that Murtha would not face prosecution for his part in the scandal. The U.S. Attorneys Office reasoned that Murtha's intent was to obtain investment in his district. Full length viewing of the tape shows Murtha citing prospective investment opportunities that could return "500 or 1000" miners to work. In July 1981, the House Ethics Committee also chose not to file charges against Congressman Murtha, following a mostly party line vote. The resignation later that day of Republican E. Barrett Prettyman, Jr., the panel's special counsel, has been interpreted as an act of protest.
Mr. Murtha remains prominent in Congress, and has been re-elected by his constituency 13 times over a course of 26 years.
Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD) refused to take the bribe, saying at the time, "Wait a minute, what you are suggesting may be illegal." He immediately reported the incident to the FBI. When Senator Pressler was told Walter Cronkite referred to him on the evening news as a "hero" he stated, "I do not consider myself a hero ... what have we come to if turning down a bribe is 'heroic'?
In the wake of ABSCAM, Attorney General Civiletti issued "The Attorney General Guidelines for FBI Undercover Operations" ("Civiletti Undercover Guidelines") on January 5, 1981. These were the first Attorney General Guidelines for undercover operations, and they formalized procedures necessary to conduct undercover operations.
Following the initial press accounts about the ABSCAM investigation, Congress held a series of hearings to examine FBI undercover operations and the new Civiletti Undercover Guidelines. The House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights began hearings on FBI undercover operations in March 1980 and concluded with a report in April 1984. Among the concerns expressed during the hearings were the undercover agents' involvement in illegal activity, the possibility of entrapping individuals, the prospect of damaging the reputations of innocent civilians, and the opportunity to undermine legitimate rights to privacy.
In March 1982, after the Senate debated a resolution to expel Senator Harrison A. Williams for his conduct in ABSCAM, the Senate established the Select Committee to Study Undercover Activities. In December 1982, the Committee issued its final report, which was generally supportive of the undercover technique but observed that its use "creates serious risks to citizens' property, privacy, and civil liberties, and may compromise law enforcement itself."
FBI documents later disclosed in accordance with the Freedom of Information Act, consisting of newspaper clippings and letters written to the FBI, revealed a mixed response of the American public. Some Americans supported the FBI, but others argued that Abscam was an entrapment scenario ordered by a revenge-minded FBI who earlier had been stung by Congressional inquiries into acts of police brutality and similar widespread abuses. Congressional concern about sting operations persisted, creating numerous additional guidelines in the ensuing years:
During the course of Abscam, the FBI handed out more than $400,000 in bribes to Congressmen and middlemen.