In Bridgeportscam, the FBI Gets Caught with Its Pants Down—Literally

When history repeats itself, Karl Marx once said, the first time may be tragedy; the second time is farce. For six U.S. Congressmen, the FBI’s Abscam operation has so far led to prison sentences. But when the Bureau tried its undercover bait-and-snitch routine on the police superintendent of Bridgeport, Conn. two weeks ago, the G-men made a prophet out of Marx and ended up looking more like Inspector Clouseau than Sherlock Holmes.

Superintendent Joseph Walsh, 65, was suspicious from the minute he heard that a local ne’er-do-well named Tony Marra was looking for him. Not only was the 28-year-old Marra a convicted car thief, but he had been sentenced to two years in July—and Walsh was surprised to see him back on the streets. The superintendent suspected that Marra might be working undercover for the feds. So Walsh agreed to meet him at a Bridgeport street corner, and the two men drove off to a deserted parking area. The young felon asked Walsh to reinstate a city auto-towing contract recently taken away from the Marra family. When Marra offered Walsh $5,000 in cash as a down payment on a $30,000 bribe for the contract, Walsh let him produce the money and then announced: “Put your hands on the dashboard. You’re under arrest for attempted bribery.”

What followed was worthy of a scene from the Keystone Kops. Walsh’s minions quickly descended on the car, rousted Marra and discovered a bugging device taped to his leg. “Whoever you are, come out and join the party,” a police inspector shouted into the device. Quicker than you can say J. Edgar Hoover, two badge-flashing G-men arrived to demand the return of their equipment, their money and their stool pigeon. The feds accused the locals of interfering with a government investigation. The Bridgeport cops threatened the FBI men with arrest—and they all hied off to the local police station, where Marra was booked, the bugging device impounded, and the money earmarked for the Police Athletic League. “They thought they were dealing with a small-town cop,” Walsh gloated after the flummoxed feds skulked away. “If I was a senile old man, they might have had a chance. But anybody who offers Joe Walsh money is crazy.” Added an ecstatic Mayor John Mandanici: “Our superintendent certainly was a lot smarter than all those Congressmen and Senators who got caught in Abscam.”

In fact, the moment of buffo hilarity came in the midst of a deadly serious federal inquiry into corruption in Bridgeport, a rickety industrial town where P.T. Barnum once served as mayor. Mandanici has already taken the Fifth Amendment before one grand jury; Walsh and a key aide, Inspector Anthony Fabrizi, were identified as targets of the investigation.

Shortly after the parking-area fracas, an Assistant U.S. Attorney arrived at the police station and announced that he was acting as Marra’s lawyer. So sure of victory were the FBI men that they had tipped off a reporter for the Bridgeport morning paper, says Walsh. While circling the scene in his car, the correspondent was scooped—by a reporter-photographer from the paper’s afternoon rival, who had been alerted by Walsh’s team. To local officials, the reverse sting was a vindication of the honesty of Mandanici’s political machine. “This whole investigation has just been an attempt to blow our patronage system out of all proportion,” said mayoral aide Pat Spinelli, who freely admits that governmental largess often finds its way to political cronies of Mandanici. “It’s a political witch-hunt for the mayor.”

The Bridgeport scam has exacerbated traditionally bitter relations between local and U.S. officials. “Those feds were so cool in their three-piece suits,” chortled Fabrizi. “They acted like they were God’s gift to law enforcement, and they tried to treat us like dirt.” Federal officials refused any comment on the affair—but Mayor Mandanici refused to stop talking about it. He demanded a congressional investigation—and California Rep. Don Edwards, chairman of a House Judiciary subcommittee, agreed, branding the FBI action “self-defeating. The FBI could be guilty of criminal activity,” Edwards said. Walsh, in fact, has already asked the local district attorney to issue warrants for the arrest of the G-men on bribery charges. Meanwhile Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd incurred the Mayor’s wrath by stepping into the dispute. “You bastard,” Democrat Mandanici snapped at his party’s senior state officeholder. “You’d milk this son of a bitch for all it was worth if it happened to you.”

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