WASHINGTON, D.C., 1980
“Fitz,” Assistant Director Roy McKinnon said the day he summoned me to his office at headquarters in Washington in late 1980, “we need an Irishman to go to Boston to kick ass and take names.”
I laughed but he didn’t.
“Any suggestions?” he asked instead, staring me in the eye.
McKinnon was the ultimate straight shooter. He had a square jaw and wore his salt-and-pepper hair cropped military close. I seem to remember he’d been a Marine; either way, there was a directness of purpose about him befitting a military mind-set, right down to the orderly nature of his office, in which nothing, not even a single scrap of paper, was ever out of place. He told me the assignment was important for a variety of reasons. He sounded grave about my new adventure and talked about difficult problems in Boston without specifically outlining what those problems were. Right out of the gate, loud and clear, he ordered me to put Boston on the “straight and narrow.” My initial reaction was it sounded like déjà vu, having had an assignment in Miami in the mid-to-late 1970s where, in fact, I did kick ass and take names in the ABSCAM investigation that nabbed numerous public officials, including a sitting U.S. senator. ABSCAM was a sting operation that targeted corrupt politicians and possible law enforcement personnel. I supervised the sting undercover, getting targets, including Senator Harrison Williams (D-NJ), to implicate themselves on tape. It was, in all respects, the FBI at its best.
I was Miami’s Economic Crimes (EC) supervisor at the time and also worked undercover on our yacht, the Left Hand. I had procured the sixty-foot yacht from U.S. Customs, which had acquired the boat as part of their seizure in a major drug sting. We needed a “come-on” for our undercover gig and the Left Hand fit the bill beautifully. Before we docked the boat in Boca Raton, my squad cleaned it and installed surveillance equipment around the large foredeck, which was perfect for entertaining, and inside a trio of well-appointed cabins for private meetings. Soon, the Left Hand became an attraction and developed a notorious reputation in South Florida, fostered in large part by our undercover persona.
ABSCAM became the biggest case ever on the EC squad, recovering millions of dollars in fraudulent securities and various white-collar crime scams. We decided to have a final party and invited all of the criminals we had evidence on to attend. We equipped the boat with additional surveillance equipment and captured our future arrestees on tape. The “Sheik,” an undercover agent, was posing as the wealthiest person in Miami, a connected Arab. While I sat up in the control room with the Strike Force chief, we encountered a problem. Senator Williams had appeared and demanded that he be allowed to attend our party. We declined and he demanded to see the Sheik anyway.
Under orders from FBIHQ we were told in no way could the senator board the boat. The Strike Force chief insisted we finish the sting, but FBIHQ demanded we close the operation down. HQ’s concern was that allowing the senator to come aboard a boat laden with druggers, prostitutes, and criminals might be seen as a form of entrapment.
Afer much deliberation with FBIHQ, the FBI special agent who was playing the sheik, told me, “Bob, I won’t allow alcohol, drugs, or anything that could harm the senator aboard my boat!”
I laughed at him and said, “You’re crazy. What kind of party are we supposed to throw?”
He looked at me and, in the dignified role and manner of a true sheik, said, “I am the sheik and I won’t let it happen!”
The party went forward on the pretext its host, our undercover sheik, could not be in the presence of drugs or alcohol for Muslim religious reasons. The recorded conversation and surveillance tapes played at Harrison Williams’s trial dispelled any notion that we had entrapped the senator, and he was found guilty and convicted in federal court by his own voice. I took no pleasure in taking down a sitting U.S. senator; to me, he was a criminal who was extorting agents of the federal government sworn to uphold the law.
In this unique experence, I became no stranger to corruption, learning how to dig it out and destroy it. And that’s why I supposed I was being transferred to Boston.
Tom Kelly, my former boss in Miami and an FBIHQ deputy at the time, had filled McKinnon in on my experience in ABSCAM, making it plain that I had cleaned up Miami and could probably do the same in Boston. Contrary to what was apparently going wrong up there, a key factor in the decision to send me north was my ability to pursue investigations without anyone tipping off the press or the target. ABSCAM was successful because all FBI agents working for me diligently did their jobs of investigating high-ranking government officials in a major scam without a single leak. Not one.
I was on a career fast track, groomed, I anticipated, for even bigger things to come. Not bad for a kid who’d grown up in a church-run institution, an orphanage on Staten Island called Mount Loretto. But that’s where my dream, this very FBI dream, was born.
Copyright © 2011 by Robert Fitzpatrick and Jon Land