Left to right: Anthony Maressa, Bill Wilhelm and Joe Maressa Jr. stand in front of a painting of the late Joe Maressa Sr.
Joe Maressa Jr. is one of South Jersey’s movers and shakers. He is an attorney specializing in real estate transactions, serves as president of Title America Agency Corp. in Berlin, N.J., and is a partner in a site location and land development firm.
A resident of Waterford Works in Camden County, Maressa is a licensed realtor and a member of countless prestigious boards, including Jefferson Hospital and Liberty Bell Bank.
Spend some time with the 59-year-old Maressa, however, and he’d rather talk about his late dad instead of himself.
Joe Maressa Sr. was one of the most influential men in South Jersey history—even if the FBI tried (unsuccessfully) to tarnish his image in a long-ago sting known as Abscam.
The 40th anniversary of the scandal that rocked the nation—and years later inspired the movie “American Hustle”—is nearing.
In Abscam, Maressa, then a New Jersey state senator, was one of the folks the FBI tried to nab in its sometimes-comical operation, which used phony Arab sheiks trying to get politicians (and others) to accept bribes that would allow them to build an Atlantic City casino. They sometimes arrived at meetings with suitcases full of cash to entice their targets.
Maressa, staying true to his honest way of doing business, outsmarted them, but the FBI’s efforts to smear his name still pains his family, including his sons, Joe Jr. and Anthony, and his nephew, Bill Wilhelm.
The trio sat down for a recent interview at Joe Maressa Jr.’s title office in Berlin, next door to the building where FBI agents dressed as sheiks tried to bribe his father about 40 years ago. It was all part of Abscam, whose name included the contraction of a fake company, Abdul Enterprises.
Joe Maressa Jr.’s conference room is sort of a shrine to his father. The walls are filled with paintings and old photos of his dad in his prime. In one of the photos, the older Maressa and then-Governor Brendan Byrne are signing a bill for the first osteopathic medical school in South Jersey.
At around the same time, Maressa Sr.’s cancer-stricken wife, Josephine, 49, was failing and near death in 1976. Her husband remained by her side, “and Governor Byrne once sent his personal helicopter for him when he was needed to vote on a key piece of legislation,” Maressa Jr. said.
Family man. Civic Leader. Church-goer. That was the essence of Joe Maressa Sr., who was NOT one of the politicians arrested and found guilty in the Abscam sting, which netted one U.S. senator, six congressmen, and more than a dozen other criminals, according to the FBI.
Maressa, who died at age 89 in 2012, reasoned he was being “patriotic” by taking OPEC money to “get it back to the United States.”
That quote is totally misunderstood, Maressa Jr. said. “What he meant was that we were getting raped by the Arabs with OPEC. Now it was time for them to invest $500 million into New Jersey.”
Added Maressa: “The way it came out, the way it was couched in some publications, was it was patriotic to take a bribe. That’s not what he was saying.”
“It really bothered him to no end,” said Wilhelm, 72, a nephew of the late Maressa who worked for him as a legislative aide for four years in the 1970s. “…He was saying the United States was being taken advantage of and he saw this as an opportunity to get something back for our [state].”
“And it bothered him because if you knew him, he was straight as an arrow,” Maressa Jr. said. “He was a very big benefactor to the Catholic Church, he sponsored anti-obscenity bills. He was a Democrat, but he was pro-life, pro-NRA.”
“He was a former state trooper, so for the FBI to try to entrap him, that was just dumb,” Wilhelm said.
Anthony Maressa brought up another point.
“He was a proud, proud lawyer,” Anthony Maressa, 69, said of his dad. “He would never jeopardize his law license. He LOVED being a lawyer.”
Maressa did take $10,000 from disguised FBI agents, but he said it was for legal fees. He put the money in the bank.
If he was accepting what he thought was a bribe, there’s no way he would have put it in a place “where there’s a complete record,” Wilhelm said.
The FBI was going after Maressa, Camden Mayor Angelo Errichetti, who was also a state senator, and New Jersey Senator Harrison A. “Pete” Williams Jr., among many others.
Based on talks with his dad, Maressa said the “sheiks” would “be sitting around a table and talking about how they had unlimited funding and would say, ‘We know you guys can help us. We want to invest in Atlantic City and build our casino.’ And as a good lawyer, you’d ask about finances and what type of casino [they wanted to build]. They even had some drawings and elevations of what they were looking at… And every time, they would say, ‘You have to take money. This is how we do it.’ And my father would say, ‘It’s not right for me to take money. I’m in the Senate. If it’s good for the state and you’re going to bring jobs and do things the right way, I’m happy to help.’
“After a year of being tortured and barraged and meeting after meeting, he’s not taking the money,” Maressa Jr. said. “These were suitcases full of money, and you had to sit in a certain chair so the [hidden] camera was on you.”
The “sheiks” said they would walk out of the room “unless you touch the money. They knew he wouldn’t put it in his pocket, so now the last resort was you had to touch the money,” Maressa Jr. said. “I think Dad even said, ‘Let me get my good side because I know I’m on camera.’ You have to remember, the guy was a state trooper and a trial lawyer. His famous saying was that he smelled a rat from Day 1. In the first meeting, they were stuffing money in Angelo Errichetti’s pockets, and Angelo tried running out of the room and they ran after him. That’s a true story.”
“And they depicted that in the film,” Wilhelm added.
That zany 2013 film, the wildly entertaining “American Hustle,” starred Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence and was loosely based on the Abscam caper of 1978 to 1980. Maressa was not mentioned in the movie, which focused on Errichetti (a different name was used in the film) and opened with this amusing qualifier: “Some of this actually happened.”
“I watched it three times to see if [Maressa Sr. was a part of it],” Wilhelm said. “But there was no mention.”
“Sometimes people think Angelo took the money from jump street, but HE walked out of the room several times and they were relentlessly on him. And they actually made friends with him … and eventually he took the money.” Maressa Jr. said. “They wore him down. But there was no wearing our father down.”
Joe Silvestri, a New Jersey real-estate developer, was the person who approached Maressa about a deal with the sheiks, Wilhelm said.
Maressa had represented Silvestri as an attorney in the past, Wilhelm said.
“Joe Silvestri comes down and I think my father trusted the guy,” Maressa Jr. said. “He said, ‘You have to meet these guys. These guys have $500 million and want to build a casino.’”
The gist of the conversation, Maressa Jr. said, was that his father was “an influential guy who can rally the troops.”
When the sting was nearing its end and Maressa still had not accepted any money, as a last resort the Arabs said “if you don’t take it, you at least have to touch it,” according to Maressa Jr. “To the Arabs, it was considered a culture insult if you don’t accept it.”
When Maressa finally did take $10,000—which he said would be payment for legal fees the Arabs would accumulate—it was after a meeting at his Berlin, N.J., law office, which is next door to what is now his son’s title office.
According to Maressa Jr., his dad deposited they money in his attorney-trust account as a retainer and “wrote the guy a receipt and a letter that said he accepted money on such and such a date and that he deposited those funds in United Jersey Bank on Route 73 in Berlin. And that he would bill it at a certain hourly rate as the need arises.
“I guess they figured they had him, and then the story broke shortly thereafter,” Maressa Jr, said.
Maressa was never indicted. He volunteered to go to the grand jury. “Now, nobody volunteers to go to the grand jury,” Maressa Jr. said. “He said, ‘I’ll tell my story because I did nothing wrong.’”
Frank Hartman was Maressa’s attorney during the Abscam days. Hartman remembers Errichetti, not Silvestri, arranging for Maressa to meet with the sheiks.
Hartman, 88, a Moorestown resident who retired last June after spending 67 years as a lawyer, kidded that if Maressa had been indicted and gone to trial that it would have helped his career.
“I laughingly say it’s a shame they didn’t indict him because I could have won that case rather easily in front of a jury, I think, and I would have had much more publicity and had a big celebration,” he said with a chuckle.
There is an ironic kicker to the story surrounding the $10,000 Maressa took from the supposed sheiks and put in the bank.
Silvestri, the man who was a client of Maressa’s but, according to the state senator’s sons, tried to entrap their father into taking a bribe, went to jail for his part in Abscam.
“Silvestri’s wife wrote my dad a few years later, saying she was down and out and that Joe Silvestri left her with no money,” Maressa Jr. said.
According to Joe Maressa Jr., “the FBI guys told my father we knew we couldn’t get you, we knew you were onto us, but we were just having fun, and they let him keep the money. And my father sent Joe Silvestri’s wife (a big chunk of) that money because she was having hard times.”
Anthony Maressa said it still puzzles him that the FBI tried to tempt his father.
“Why did this happen? I’ve often felt there was somebody at the top with ulterior motives,” he said. “There was more than just catching people doing things. I think it was politically motivated. At the time, the Democrats were getting real strong.”
The Republicans didn’t like that, he said.
“My father was a very loving person and a very shrewd businessman and had uncanny street smarts,” Anthony Maressa Jr. said, “so it was easy for him to see what was going on.”
“It was a clear case of entrapment,” Maressa Jr. added. “They phonied up bank accounts to show my father and others that these guys had $500 million in a bank in New York. And $500 million 40 years ago has a much bigger impact on $500 million today. It’s still a lot of money, but back then, nobody talked in those kind of numbers.”
Maressa Sr. was viewed as an insider because he was on a Casino Study Committee, his sons said, “and he actually used his own money to go to Paradise Island in the Bahamas and different places to do research so he could give an accurate report to the Senate,” Anthony Maressa said.
At the time, Maressa did not know that Abscam was in the future.
“…Somebody decided to go after the South Jersey powerbrokers,” Maressa Jr. said “I don’t know if we’ll ever find out [who was behind it], but there’s no question it was a sting. It was a manufactured sting.”
The entrapment guidelines were changed after the Abscam case.
“What does that tell you?” Anthony Maressa said.
After Abscam, Joe Maressa decided not to run for another term as a state senator. Anthony Maressa said it was a travesty that the sting changed his father’s political aspirations, even though he was innocent.
“As a team player for the Democratic party, my father would have been a state senator for 50 years,” Anthony Maressa said. “He was like the patron saint of South Jersey. When everything was in North Jersey….he worked to bring things to South Jersey.”
He sponsored a Senate bill to start the first osteopathic medical school in South Jersey.
Maressa also helped create the Camden County Hero Scholarship for families that lost a fireman or police officer in the line of duty; he set up the paperwork, without charge, to incorporate more than 50 South Jersey non-profit organizations, including fire departments, Little Leagues, and EMS and ambulance squads.
“He’s responsible for numerous traffic lights around South Jersey,” Maressa Jr. said. “Getting a traffic light was very difficult at the time. He was always cognizant that South Jersey was getting shortchanged and all the money went to North Jersey, so anything he could do to help South Jersey, he did.”
Maressa Sr. didn’t run for state senator again because “he was a gentleman and wanted to make sure the Democrats didn’t have [Abscam] hanging over their heads,” Anthony Maressa said.
“I’m sure Abscam had something to do with it,” Wilhelm said about Maressa deciding not to run again. “There was such negative publicity, and I’m sure he thought, ‘At this point in my life, do I really need this?’”
“My brother and cousin are 10, 12 years older than me, so I wasn’t out in the working world yet when this happened,” Joe Maressa Jr. said. “My friends all thought he was a hero. They’d say, ‘Man, your dad outsmarted the FBI.’”