Sometimes you can tell the importance of an event by the crowd it draws.
That certainly was the case Tuesday as a courtroom packed with white collar defense attorneys, reporters, FBI agents and DOJ lawyers watched opening arguments in a foreign corruption trial for four defendants charged with attempting to pay bribes to government officials in Africa to win lucrative supply contracts.
The left side of the room was the de facto government bleachers, and seated there were DOJ bigwigs Fraud Section Chief Denis McInerney, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Greg Andres, Chuck Duross, the head of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act team, and other top brass. Also in attendance was Steven Durham, chief of corruption unit of the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office.
The DOJ leadership had turned up to watch a case that many view as a test of the department’s increasingly aggressive enforcement of the FCPA. They listened as Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Haray told the jury, “This was a corrupt deal, plain and simple, and they all knew it.”
Paul Pelletier, the former chief deputy in the fraud section, showed up just before Haray began. His former colleagues joked with him that he should sit on the right side of the room now that he’s in private practice. Pelletier recently jumped to the Washington office of Boston-based Mintz Levin Cohn Ferris Glovsky and Popeo P.C. after nine years in the section.
Haray told jurors that the defendants knowingly agreed to pay bribes to government officials in Africa to win lucrative supply contracts, and were caught as the result of an undercover sting designed to “root out corruption in the international arms industry.”
But defense attorneys claimed that the FBI’s investigation was corrupted because the agents ceded control of the operation to its chief cooperator, a man they called a “highly incentivized criminal informant” and a “scoundrel.”
“Mr. Haray wants you to believe this case is about a few snippets of tape,” defense attorney Eric Bruce said. “It’s not. This case is about law enforcement not following the rules first, and rushing to make arrests second.”
After more than 16 months of pre-trial proceedings, the much-anticipated foreign bribery case began Tuesday. Twenty-two defendants were charged in 16 sealed indictments filed in December 2009 with violating and conspiring to violate the FCPA, which prohibits bribes to foreign officials to obtain or retain business, as well as conspiracy to launder money.
The indictments were unsealed in January 2010 after the arrests of all but one of the defendants in a dramatic roundup at a gun show in Las Vegas. The defendants have since been broken into four separate trial groups, and defendants Pankesh Patel, Andrew Bigelow, John Benson Weir and Lee Allen Tolleson make up the first group.
The case is the culmination of a complicated sting operation in which FBI agents, in coordination with industry executive-turned-cooperator Richard Bistrong, posed as representatives of the West African country of Gabon, soliciting bribes for a fictitious $15 million deal to supply the Ministry of Defense. The investigation was the first large scale use of wiretaps, undercover agents and other clandestine investigative techniques in an FCPA case.
Haray said that the defendants had no concerns that the commissions they were paying would line the pockets of corrupt ministers and would not directly benefit the impoverished African country itself. He repeatedly pointed at each of the defendants during his opening, describing them as willing participants in the corrupt scheme.
Haray mentioned Bistrong only briefly during his opening, instead focusing on the defendants’ interactions with the undercover agents they thought to be representatives of Gabon. During a hearing on Monday, it was divulged that the government is unlikely to call Bistrong as a witness.
Bistrong, a former vice president of international sales at Armor Holdings Inc., pleaded guilty to conspiracy in September. He was nabbed in an investigation of corrupt sales to United Nations peacekeeping units in the mid 2000s.
Bruce forcefully drew attention to Bistrong’s absence from the government’s statements during his opening. He repeatedly called Bistrong a “scoundrel,” painting him as a master manipulator who had the FBI wrapped around his finger.
“Let’s see if the government even has the nerve to call Mr. Bistrong. I’m betting they don’t do it,” Bruce said. “You could scour this country of ours and not find a less reliable, less trustworthy, less honest person.”
Judge Richard Leon, who is presiding over the case, has previously indicated that he will allow the defendants to call Bistrong.
Attorney Todd Foster, who is representing Weir, said the Bistrong was the “architect” of the case and that the FBI agents ceded control of the investigation to him, against agency rules, out of a desire to make headline-grabbing arrests. Foster outlined how each stage of the investigation was allegedly designed by Bistrong, whose only goal was to stay out of jail.
The defense attorneys also sought to rebut Haray’s claims that their clients are shady international arms dealers, instead describing them as middling businessmen dealing in law enforcement products like laser sights, tear gas and uniforms.
Lawyers for Tolleson painted him as a “small town kid,” who was home-schooled, had no college education, and only became caught up in the FBI sting when his employer, Arkansas-based ALS Technologies, hired Bistrong.
At one point Tolleson’s lawyer, Joseph Passanise, asked Tolleson’s wife, who was seated in the spectator’s seats, to stand for the jury. Tolleson, who has a boyish face and anxiously bounced his leg throughout the hearing, smiled quickly at her as she stood.
Each of the opening statements lasted roughly twenty minutes and attorneys for Andrew Bigelow opted not to give one. The trial now turns to government’s case-in-chief, in which it must lay out its evidence against the defendants.
Corrected 5/19/11: This article incorrectly said Steven Durham is the Fraud and Public Corruption Chief in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s Office. Durham is the chief of the office’s corruption unit.
Over a month after the U.S. Justice Department chastised the Gulf Coast Claims Facility for its slow pace in processing claims stemming from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the fund’s Administrator Kenneth Feinberg said Wednesday they have already meted out $1.7 billion.
The $20 billion fund, established by BP and the federal government to compensate victims of the spill, has already paid claims to about 90,000 people, according to Feinberg. But more than 110,000 claimants submitted no documentation, making it impossible to process their claims, he said.
“We’ll work with these claimants and try and get these claims paid as quickly as possible,” Feinberg said during a speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Legal Reform Summit.
On Sept. 17, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli sent Feinberg a sharply worded letter, criticizing the GCCF for the slow rate at which it was processing claims.
“The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill has disrupted the lives of thousands upon thousands of individuals, often cutting off the income on which they depend,” Perrelli wrote in the letter. “Many of these individuals and businesses simply do not have the resources to get by while they await processing by the GCCF.”
Feinberg, who also administered the Sept. 11 Victims Fund, said the process was complex because the majority of the claims deal with economic loss because of business disruption. In contrast, the Sept. 11 fund dealt with relatives who had lost loved ones in the terrorist attacks, he said.
Feinberg described the claims submitted up to this point as mere “skirmishes.” Starting on Nov. 3, victims have three years to file long-term claims against BP; so far, most of the payouts have been for emergency funds.
Claimants submitting long term claims will have several options. Those offered final, lump sum payments for damages will have to give up their right to pursue further litigation. Those unwilling to give up their litigation rights, can receive interim payments while they try to assess the full extent of the damage. Claimants also can reject fund payments altogether and take their claims to court.
In spite of the fund, trial lawyers predict that the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history will almost certainly result in big legal cases.
Feinberg said he respects the work of the plaintiff’s bar but that his mission is to prevent lengthy and costly litigation.
“My challenge is to see if I can develop a program that will compensate claimants in amounts greater than they would likely receive [from going to court],” Feinberg said.
Feinberg also addressed concerns that $20 billion set aside by BP would not be enough to compensate all of the spill’s victims. He said he took BP “at their word” when they promised to dedicate more money to fund if turned out to be insufficient.
This post has been updated.
A federal grand jury in Washington D.C. indicted Roger Clemens Thursday on six charges, including perjury and making false statements to Congress about his use of performance enhancing drugs.
The indictment was returned to U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah A. Robinson nearly two and half years after Clemens testified under oath about his use of banned substances at a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Clemens faces up to 30 years in prison and $1.5 million fine if convicted.
During the hearing in February 2008, Clemens offered testimony that directly conflicted with that of his former trainer, Brian McNamee, who also appeared before the committee. According to the Washington Post, McNamee said during the hearing that he injected Clemens nearly 40 times with steroids and human growth hormones from 1998 to 2001. Clemens denied the allegations.
Throughout the Congressional hearings, Clemens was represented by Lanny Breuer, who is now the head of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, and white collar defense attorney Rusty Hardin, who still represents Clemens. Breuer has recused himself from any matters related to Clemens.
The hearings were held two months after McNamee linked Clemens to banned substances in George J. Mitchell’s report on the use of performance-enhancing drugs in baseball. McNamee agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in 2008 in order to avoid steroid distribution charges.
According to McNamee’s attorneys, their client turned over syringes, gauze pads and other items that he claimed he used to inject Clemens to federal investigators. Clemens lawyers said McNamee lied about the pitcher’s alleged drug use and may have falsified the evidence. In August, a federal appeals court in Houston refused to reinstate a defamation lawsuit against McNamee filed by Clemens.
Other MLB players have also been charged with making false statements about their use of performance enhancing drugs. Miguel Tejada, who plays for the Baltimore Orioles, pleaded guilty last year to lying to congressional investigators about his knowledge of steroid use. He was sentenced to one year of probation.
In 2007, federal authorities in San Francisco indicted Barry Bonds, the career leader in home runs, alleging that he perjured himself before a grand jury investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. Bonds has retired from baseball is scheduled to go on trial next March.
The investigation of Clemens, who pitched his last game in 2007 after an illustrious career with the Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees and Astros, has jeopardized his chances of going to the Hall of Fame. Both Clemens and Bonds are scheduled to appear on the 2013 ballot.
The Justice Department’s investigation Clemens is being handled by D.C. Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel P. Butler and Steven J. Durham, the chief of the Fraud and Public Corruption Section in the D.C. U.S. Attorney’s office.
In an e-mail to the Post, Hardin said “we have heard nothing from the government.”
The Hajj — the annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca — has become a source of corruption in Indonesia.
Every year the Southeast-Asian nation, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, sends the most pilgrims to Mecca of any country in the world. But according to New York Times story published Thursday, Indonesian government officials and politicians are misusing money deposited by some 1.2 million pilgrims on a government waiting list for the trip to the Saudi Arabian city.
According to government investigators and anti-corruption groups, Indonesian officials exploit the wide-ranging requirements of the state-run Hajj, dipping into the nearly $2.4 billion deposited by pilgrims on the waiting list for personal gain. In turn, this had contributed to food shortages and cramped accommodations for pilgrims.
Veteran bureaucrats and lawmakers have formed a “Hajj mafia,” using annual negotiations over the cost of the pilgrimage to extract bribes for themselves, the Times said. This year, Indonesia’s national Parliament and officials at the Ministry of Religious Affairs recently settled on the price of the Hajj, after officials agreed to share $2.8 million in bribes from the ministry.
According to the Times, ministry officials and lawmakers deny the accusations, defending themselves by citing the fact that the cost of the pilgrimage had been lowered by $80 to $3,342, compared with last year. Anti-corruption groups say that without graft and mismanagement the cost would be several hundred dollars lower.
In 2006, senior ministry officials were convicted for misusing Hajj funds and bribing state auditors to validate the ministry’s accounts. A recent report by the Corruption Eradication Commission, the government’s main anti-corruption agency, identified 48 practices in Hajj management that could lead to corruption. Despite these developments, advocates say the Hajj system remains corrupt.
Hewlett Packard Co. announced Monday that it had reached a settlement agreement in principle with the U.S. Department of Justice to resolve an investigation into alleged kickbacks paid between HP, Sun Microsystems Inc. and Accenture PLC for government contracts.
The California-based computer manufacturer will pay about $50 million to settle two lawsuits, originally filed in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, Ark., that alleged HP submitted false claims to the U.S. government for technology contracts, Bloomberg News reported Tuesday.
The case dates back to 2004, when two former employees of the consulting giant Accenture, Norman Rille and Neal Roberts, filed whistleblower suits under the False Claims Act. Those suits accused HP, Accenture and Sun, which was acquired by Oracle Corp. in January, of arranging kickback schemes that defrauded the government. The Justice Department joined the lawsuits against HP in 2007.
In a statement, HP said that settlement is subject to the approval of the Justice Department and the courts. The company also said it had agreed to the settlement without any admission of wrongdoing.
The Justice Department declined to comment to the Associated Press.
HP is also under investigation for potential violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. In April, The U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission joined a widening German and Russian probe into potential bribes paid by HP executives to officials in the Russian government.