12/29/1980 at 01:00 AM EST
He is a man of unscrupulous variety. Early in his career he smashed windows with a slingshot to drum up business for his languishing glass company. Later, on a far grander scale, he gulled scores of Americans into putting up more than $1 million in application fees on the promise of Arab-backed loans. Such escapades pale, however, when compared to Mel Weinberg's performance after he went to work for the U.S. government. In 1978 he bargained his way out of a three-year prison term for fraud and conspiracy and became an FBI front. Over a 19-month period Weinberg gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs to politicians anxious to do favors for a phony Arab (played by an FBI agent). Operation Abscam was concocted by Weinberg and named after one of his bogus companies, Abdul Enterprises. So far the Abscam investigation has resulted in 19 indictments and 12 convictions, including those of four congressmen. Many of the cases are under appeal and two convictions have been overturned.
Weinberg, 56, has been compensated by more than just his freedom. His personal take from Abscam includes $130,000 in FBI salary (he paid no taxes in 1978 or 1979, claiming the FBI agreed to take care of that) and a $45,000 book advance. He also owns a $77,000 condo in Florida, a 22-foot boat and two 1981 cars, one a Cadillac. His wardrobe features a stash of $500 suits, diamond rings for each pinkie, four gold neck chains and a gold bracelet engraved with his name. True to his calling, Weinberg denies he is anything near rich. "I don't have a pot to piss in," he complained in an exclusive interview with Greg Walter of PEOPLE.
Abscam has given the public a rare glimpse of a master con artist's bottomless gall. On the FBI payoff videotapes, a prospective mark complained that another dupe was an unreliable alcoholic. "Give him a drink," snapped Weinberg impatiently. On the witness stand, Weinberg denied he had bilked an uncle out of $50,000. "It was a cousin," he protested. His victims are unamused by his Runyonesque style. "Mel Weinberg makes J.R. Ewing look like Peter Pan," says ex-Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, defense counsel for convicted lawyer Howard Criden. "Weinberg would do anything."
Mel almost agrees. Growing up in the Bronx, he watched his father's glass business struggle through the Depression and decided to supplement the family income by stealing. "I was always a poor student, but I was a streetwise tough guy," he says. He served in the Navy during World War II, then, when the glass business went bankrupt, borrowed from organized crime to revive it. "I got in with a couple of insurance companies," he recalls. "I was paying them kickbacks and they'd tell me which customers they had and I'd go out and break their windows at night. I built my company from one truck to five." Even after he became a Middle East con specialist with a global reputation, Weinberg always had time to think small. When his father died several years ago, Mel chiseled a perpetual-care marker off an uncle's grave and transferred it to his father's new tombstone.
Along the way, Weinberg was divorced by his first wife, who had borne him three children. He remarried in 1963 and adopted a boy, now 15, whom, ironically, he calls J.R. (for Junior). His new family lived for years in relative anonymity in Central Islip, Long Island. "I'm a loner," Weinberg explains. "A con man's got a lonely life because you can't bother with your neighbors. They'll start asking questions."
Well they might. During much of that period Weinberg lived nearby with another woman, a British-born domestic named Evelyn Knight ("I liked the tension of having two women"). He began passing her off as Lady Evelyn, one of the world's 10 richest women. When the two of them were arrested in Pittsburgh in 1977 on charges of fraud and conspiracy, he took the rap—because he loved her, he says. That's when the FBI saved him. Today Weinberg lives with Knight, 38, in a Florida condominium only 30 miles from the one he bought for his family. She calls herself Evelyn Weinberg.
A man of flexible standards otherwise, Weinberg draws the line when he feels his privacy threatened. "Don't ever knock my family," he warns. "Anybody hurts my family hurts me, and I don't take it from nobody." He speaks warmly of his secret East Coast Florida lair. "Every con man always has a place to hang his hat and hide, where nobody knows who he is," he says. "Because if you think you're never gonna get into trouble, you're only kidding yourself." Weinberg admits he has been suckered himself, once when he bought phony gold stock from members of a Mexican Indian tribe. He simply resold the stock to another patsy. "I have a philosophy," he says. "If a guy f______s me, I don't cry. I just f______ somebody else."