John Good, FBI agent whose famous sting inspired ‘American Hustle’, dies at 80

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Friday, 21 October, 2016, 8:39pm

It featured undercover FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks and their agents, a con man in the service of the bureau, and a bevy of public officials caught on video in the baldfaced act of influence-peddling.

The investigation, conducted in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, was known as Abscam. It led to the conviction of six members of the US House of Representatives and one US senator in events dramatised in the 2013 film “American Hustle.”

John Good, the FBI agent who led the two-year sting, and whose character was played by Bradley Cooper in the movie, died on September 28 at his home in Island Park, New York. He as 80. His son-in-law, Paul Farrell, confirmed the death this week and said the family did not know the cause. Good had undergone a heart operation two months ago.

Good was a second-generation FBI employee.

By the 1970s, the younger Good was stationed at a field office on Long Island, where he was investigating public corruption in the construction of a sewer project. Eager to pursue bigger cases, he undertook a collaboration with Mel Weinberg, a convicted swindler who, by Weinberg’s account, “copped a plea” and signed on with the FBI as a paid informant.

With Weinberg’s assistance, FBI agents established a fictitious company, Abdul Enterprises, purportedly owned by an Arab sheik who was looking to make investments - licit or otherwise - in the United States.

Initially, the investigation exposed criminal dealings in stolen artwork and fraudulent financial transactions. Eventually, it drew in local and then national officials trading political favors for cash.

Good, Weinberg and the rest of the FBI team conducted their business at airports, in hotel rooms and in a rented home in the Georgetown neighbourhood of Washington, DC. Good oversaw the work.

To maintain the appearance of wealth, they hired private jets and entertained on a yacht. They recorded their interactions with officials in footage that would later dominate the headlines with its unseemliness.

“Money talks in this business and bulls*** walks,” Representative Michael “Ozzie” Myers memorably remarked on a tape in which he was seen accepting an envelope containing US$50,000 in cash in exchange for a promise to introduce a private immigration bill on behalf of the supposed sheik. Myers was among those convicted.

“The politicians were just unbelievably unethical and ruthless,” Good told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2013.

Decades later, the investigation is still regarded as one of the largest and most dramatic probes of its kind. Weinberg sold his life-story rights to the makers of American Hustle, in which he was portrayed by Christian Bale.

Good saw his relationship with Weinberg as central to the investigation’s success.

“There is one basic secret to dealing with informants,” Good once said.

“You’ve got to give them respect,” Good said. “No matter what they might have done in the past, they are still human beings. These people have pride. To be called a stool pigeon, a canary, a fink is demeaning. ... They have to know that you are sincere, that you will keep your promises.”

Weinberg, for his part, expressed similar admiration for Good and said that they had stayed in touch over the years, visiting one another and, on at least one occasion, went sailing.

“If it wasn’t for John Good there would have been no Abscam,” said Weinberg, 91, reached by telephone at his home in Florida. “I would back him up anytime, anywhere.”