Abscam and 'American Hustle' have Baltimore lineage

The 1970s corruption investigation known as Abscam, celebrated in "American Hustle," one of the holiday season's hottest movies, had its roots in Baltimore. It was in Charm City that the FBI tested the sting-style operation that marked Abscam as a particularly theatrical and effective form of undercover investigation. Baltimore FBI agents later trained those who carried out the Abscam sting.

Abscam famously featured FBI agents posing as Arab sheiks, along with an accomplished con artist (played by Christian Bale in "American Hustle") who helped the feds set up the operation that led to the bribery convictions of six U.S. representatives and one senator, along with numerous local officials in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

But the FBI's experiment in this type of operation started on a smaller scale in Baltimore in 1975, three years before Abscam's launch, when two FBI agents employed an admitted con man to lead them into the realm of city politics and public works contracts.

The hustler was a native Baltimorean named Salvatore Spinnato.

In the early 1970s, Spinnato had talked people into investing in a line of cologne called Roman Leather, a line of shampoo called Shampoo and Curl, and a shrimp farm in El Salvador. The farm was supposed to produce giant shrimp marketed under the brand name "Beast In A Basket."

Never happened, of course.

Unhappy investors complained to authorities in Maryland. Some went to the FBI. That's when Spinnato first appeared on the bureau's local radar.

Spinnato fancied himself a "great impostor," inspired by Tony Curtis' character in a 1961 movie by that title. At different times, Spinnato had presented himself as a seminarian, a brain surgeon, a nurse and a respiratory therapist. He claimed to be a Vietnam veteran and a Navy SEAL.

The FBI found his acting talents useful in 1975 and 1976.

Some historical perspective:

By the mid-1970s, the bureau's regional office, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. attorney in Baltimore had been on a roll, securing corruption convictions of the Baltimore County executive and the Anne Arundel County executive as well as the no-contest plea and resignation of Spiro T. Agnew, the former Maryland governor who had served for nearly five years as Richard Nixon's vice president.

In addition, federal prosecutors had launched an investigation into the questionable activities of Agnew's successor as governor, Marvin Mandel, and his associates.

In the midst of all that, a team of federal agents trained their eyes on Baltimore City Hall and Mayor William Donald Schaefer's administration, which had somehow avoided any corruption taint until that point.

The feds devised an Abscam-like scheme before anyone had heard of Abscam.

With Spinnato as their partner, two agents, Dudley F.B. "Butch" Hodgson and Ron Miller, set up a company that specialized in cleaning masonry, specifically exterior brick. They had an office on York Road in the Govans section of North Baltimore. They had a truck and cleaning equipment. They were bonded to perform the work.

They operated as MCC, for Municipal Chemical Corp.

The idea was simple: Spinnato and the agents would pose as contractors and submit bids for city contracts — mainly, to clean the exteriors of city schools and other municipal buildings. Being new to the bidding scene, the agents wanted to see whether any city officials would seek bribes in return for favoritism in the process.

The agents ended up being squeezed for thousands of dollars by a state delegate from Southeast Baltimore and a public works employee, both of whom were later convicted of extortion in federal court.

The investigation also put the FBI and IRS on the trail of established contractors who for years had rigged bids on emergency demolition work in the city. Baltimore's deputy director of public works went to federal prison, along with the contractors who had paid him off.

Though the undercover investigation was effective, it brought charges of entrapment, a precursor of the bellyaching that would come from Congress and other quarters a few years later with the Abscam indictments and trials.

But the Baltimore convictions survived legal challenges. As Hodgson testified in 1977: "We never told anyone we wanted to pay off anyone for anything. We did not offer money. People demanded money."

The MCC case also survived the duplicity of its main character, Spinnato. The con man, it turned out, had overstated his connections to City Hall and had jeopardized the whole investigation by revealing Hodgson's identity, the agent recalled in an interview 20 years later.

By then, Spinnato, a graduate of the federal witness protection program, had returned to his old ways. He had been involved in more swindles and had posed as a physician in Kentucky and Canada.

The last time I saw him was 1998; he was 55 and grim, seated for sentencing in Baltimore County Circuit Court for kidnapping, assaulting and threatening to kill his former wife's boyfriend. He got 35 years. The sentence was later reduced to 25. Spinnato is still a resident of Maryland's correctional system, a Baltimore hustler long on ice, with no movie royalties that I know of.


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