Abramoff and Abscam

Not really much of a comparison: ABSCAM manufactured corruption, while the Abramoff probers are uncovering corruption that was already there.

A few days ago, Josh Marshall of TPM quoted a reader comparing the Abramoff scandal to Abscam and warning that the Justice Department would likely back off if it seemed that the new case threatened to alter the balance of political power:

“Abscam” was a DOJ sting operation that offered bribes to congressmen. It turned out that it was a very successful sting and several members of Congress were prosecuted. But then the operation was terminated although if anything was learned it was that there were more opportunities for success. It was terminated precisely because of its success. The DOJ determined that they might be able to unseat as much as a third of the sitting Congress if they continued. DOJ determined that if they did continue then what began as a law enforcement project could alter the political balance within the Legislative branch. The DOJ decided, rightly I believe, that it was not their place to fundamentally alter that political balance.

I was working in the Criminal Division back when Abscam was happening and saw some of the documents, and that’s not the way I remember it.

Abscam, after all, wasn’t an investigation into an ongoing corrupt activity; it was a sting, in which one of the FBI’s organized-crime informants made up a corrupt activity out of whole cloth in order to show how many Congressmen would take the bait. (There was criticism of that at the time, but it seemed both fair and appropriate to me: we’d be a safer country if everyone in Washington knew that someone who came to him dangling foreign money in return for official acts was as likely as not to be an undercover agent.)

If someone speculated that a third of the Congress might have taken the bait if it had been offered to them, I couldn’t prove that person was wrong. But everyone who did in fact take the bait got dinged for it.

My old friend, teacher, and boss Phil Heymann, who was running the Criminal Division back then, confirms my memory of the process:

Abscam ended when the secret was out and the story was about to be printed. We did realize that every investigation must be brought to an end and wouldn’t have continued for many more months anyway. No one ever discussed anything like the subject of the blog. No worries about altering the political balance in Congress.

The Abramoff case is different: Members, staffers, and administration officials (not to mention pundits of various stripes) either took his dirty money or they didn’t. I can’t imagine a prosecutor backing off in the face of having too many defendants.

Of course, if the evidence started to point to criminal activity, or even knowledge of criminal activity, by Gonzales or Bush, that would present a different set of problems. But once a case such as this one gets rolling, it’s not as easy as some current commentary makes it seem for the political appointees to interfere with the actions of the career agents and prosecutors who are running the investigation.

Correcting as best I can for my optimistic bias, I think they’re going to take down everyone in sight, maybe even Norquist and Rove. And if Duke Cunningham was really wearing a wire, all bets are off.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com