'Hustle' rooted in Pittsburgh fraud

All roads -- and news stories -- seem to lead to Pittsburgh and it's true of "American Hustle" and its source material.

On June 11, 1981, Roy McHugh started his Pittsburgh Press column this way: "Call him a sentimentalist, but Mel Weinberg has a special feeling for Pittsburgh. This, he kept saying, was where Abscam began. And it's true. No one can ever take that away from us."

Bronx native Weinberg inspired the character Irving Rosenfeld, played by Christian Bale in the movie opening in theaters today. Weinberg's real-life wife was the basis for Jennifer Lawrence's character and his mistress and partner in crime, Amy Adams'.

The movie takes liberties with the real story, including the fact that Weinberg pleaded guilty to mail fraud in Pittsburgh.

As Mr. McHugh recounted: "He had this nonexistent investment company through which he obtained imaginary loans for flesh-and-blood businessmen who paid him actual fees. The fleecing went on for two years, 1975 to 1977, and then a man ... from Evans City complained to the U.S. attorney in Pittsburgh," about paying $3,500 to arrange a loan.

Weinberg's mistress, "Lady" Evelyn Knight, was an accomplice, and the fraudster recalled, "I told them I'd cop a plea if they let her off. I expected to serve time. Then the FBI asked me to help them with three or four other cases. The agents spoke up for me, and the judge said, 'All right, I'll give you probation.' "

Weinberg, an on-and-off FBI informant since 1965, cooked up the idea of putting an FBI agent in an Arab sheik's robes, and Abscam was born. He boasted to Mr. McHugh that the sting started by offering politicians $100,000 in return for a favor but cut that to $50,000.

"We could've bought these guys for $5,000, but for $5,000 they'd use a buffer. The $50,000 brought them out in person. For $50,000, they'd kill their mothers."

The con man met the columnist in the coffee shop of the then-Hilton Hotel, Downtown. Chewing a big black cigar and sporting a gold bracelet and an Indian head ring along with a diamond pinky ring and tie pin (the jewelry was "to antagonize defense lawyers"), he said his life of crime was ordained by God.

"The good Lord sat up there and said, 'Weinberg, I'm gonna make you a con man.' But let me explain something.

"When I'm in trouble, I know I've done wrong. I'm not like these politicians. They scream and holler and get on TV and look you in the face and say they're innocent. They insult your intelligence."

In early 1982, a week after accusing her estranged husband of lying as the key Abscam prosecution witness, Cynthia Marie Weinberg was found hanged in Florida. Melvin said his wife had threatened suicide before, and he blamed columnist Jack Anderson, who had interviewed her about Abscam, for her depression.

The Palm Beach County medical examiner ruled her death a suicide. Weinberg, then 58, married his longtime girlfriend, Evelyn Knight, 39, five weeks later.

For more on the real-life story, track down the reissued "The Sting Man: Inside Abscam" (Penguin Books, $16) by the late Robert W. Greene. Promotion of that book, first published in 1981, is what brought Weinberg back to Pittsburgh more than three decades ago. He reportedly is still alive and living in Florida.


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