One of Johnstown’s brushes with political infamy is taking Hollywood by storm.
The plot of “American Hustle,” a film nominated for 10 Oscars on Thursday, is loosely based on a scandal that involved one of Cambria County’s most powerful politicians.
It is a crime comedy-drama in which two con artists are forced by an FBI agent to become involved in sting operations against corrupt politicians. The storyline somewhat resembles the Abscam scandal that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In real life, federal operatives posed as Arabs offering bribes in return for political favors. The operation resulted in the conviction of one U.S. senator and six members of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Rep. John Murtha, D-Johnstown, was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator.
A black-and-white undercover video recording exists of Murtha’s sting meeting.
When offered a direct bribe, Murtha said, “I’m not interested. I’m sorry,” but then added, “at this point.” He seemed open to the possibility of having investments made in his congressional district. No money was exchanged.
“If you remember from those tapes, everything he talked to them about was investing back into the area,” said Mark Critz, a former Murtha staffer who became the 12th district’s congressman after his political mentor’s death in 2010. “It wasn’t about enriching himself.”
At the time of Abscam, Johnstown was suffering from the steel industry’s decline and the aftermath of the devastating 1977 flood.
“I think the people of this area, if he hadn’t taken that meeting and talked about investing back here, they would have been mad at him,” Critz said.
After surviving the sting and subsequent investigation, Murtha went on to become the longest-serving House member from Pennsylvania, although Abscam remained something political rivals continued to use against him in campaigns.
“It’s one of those pieces of history that people like to refer back to it,” said Critz. “And, unfortunately, in our time, you’re guilty before proven innocent.”
“American Hustle” was released on Dec. 13. It won three Golden Globe Awards and took top honors at Saturday’s Screen Actors Guild awards.
Dave Sutor is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ Dave_Sutor.