John F Good, who ran the FBI’s Abscam inquiry, resulting in grainy black-and-white videos on US TV news that showed elected officials accepting bags and envelopes of cash from what appeared to be an Arab sheikh, died at his home in Island Park, New York.
Abscam was a two-year inquiry in the late 1970s and early ‘80s in which FBI agents posed as representatives of wealthy Arabs willing to pay bribes for influence.
The idea evolved after Good, who was running the bureau’s Long Island office, saw a routine FBI memo about Mel Weinberg, a reputed small-time con man operating in the vicinity. Good’s bosses had been encouraging him to develop bigger, more important cases, and he thought Weinberg might be able to help ferret out wrongdoers, essentially by fooling a lot of people, a lot of the time.
In the beginning, Weinberg pulled in people who were thought to be interested in selling high-priced stolen art. A bureau employee of Lebanese descent was recruited to pose as the potential buyer, a wealthy sheikh who was portrayed as owning a company called Abdul Enterprises (the source of the name Abscam).
When the operation targeted the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Angelo J Errichetti, and he proved open to further suggestion, the net widened, and the sheikh’s story changed. Now he was offering cash for influence in the halls of government. The inquiry resulted in bribery and conspiracy charges against a US senator, Harrison A Williams Jr of New Jersey; six members of the House of Representatives; and a dozen others, including Errichetti. All were convicted.
The sting operation was fictionalised in the 2013 film American Hustle, starring Bradley Cooper as a composite character representing Good and two other agents.
In an interview Good seemed amused by the renewed attention to the case the film had generated. He pointed out that a number of plot elements – including the romantic triangle among the characters portrayed by Cooper, Amy Adams and Christian Bale – were pure Hollywood inventions. But the film’s depiction of the hidden camera recordings of encounters between politicians and the “sheikh” and his representative was pretty much the way it happened, he said.
Most of the operations took place at a large house in the Georgetown section of Washington, Good said. “It was wired completely. I watched all of the payoffs go down, every single one of them.”
The operation was criticised by some as relying on entrapment; others faulted it for essentially not knowing when to stop. At a Senate hearing on undercover investigations in 1982, the Abscam team was accused of having been made “giddy” by its success. Turning down the opportunities presented to meet with additional legislators would have been suspicious, Good said. “If we were real crooks out there looking to bribe congressmen, and somebody came to us and said, ‘Look, I got a better fish for you,’ how can you say, ‘No, I don’t need him’?” he said.
Dealing with tough guys like Weinberg was hardly new to Good. He had been part of the so-called hijack squad, a group formed in the 1960s to end the rampant truck hijackings from Kennedy International Airport. The job offered considerable opportunity to meet potential Mafia informers.
“He was a very, very unusual FBI agent,” Edward A McDonald, former chief of the United States Organised Crime Strike Force in Brooklyn, said of Good. “He knew how to deal with criminals. He was not a guy who sat at his desk,” but more “what used to be called a street guy.”
John Francis Good was born on 17 June, 1936, in the Bronx, New York, the eldest of the six children born to Harold F Good, himself an FBI agent whose assignments included the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg espionage case, and his wife Mary. He won a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Fordham University in 1958 and served in the Navy before joining the FBI.
The bureau assigned him to Springfield and Decatur, in Illinois, and to El Paso, Texas, before he returned to New York. He worked in the bureau’s Manhattan office before he was chosen to run the office on Long Island.
Good had been looking into shoddy sewer pipe construction and possible payoffs in 1978, when the Weinberg memo turned up on his desk.
After retiring from the bureau in 1986, Good worked as a private investigator.
He is survived by daughter Elizabeth, son John and three grandchildren. Good was divorced many years ago.
Copyright New York Times 2016. Distributed by NYT Syndication Services