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Oil-for-Food Inquiry Nets First Conviction

Iraqi American admits to illegally lobbying to end sanctions on Baghdad under Hussein. Ashcroft hints at more indictments to come.

January 19, 2005|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

UNITED NATIONS — An Iraqi American businessman pleaded guilty Tuesday to illegally receiving millions of dollars from Iraq to lobby U.S. and U.N. officials to lift sanctions against the country.

Samir A. Vincent, 64, is the first person to be convicted in the Justice Department's investigation of the U.N.'s Iraq oil-for-food program. In federal court in New York, he said that Iraq paid him, his partners and at least one U.N. official between 1996 and 2002 to work to undermine the international sanctions imposed on Baghdad in 1990.

An Iraqi-born naturalized American citizen, Vincent faces up to 28 years in prison but will probably get a reduced sentence for cooperating with investigators. He pleaded guilty to four charges: conspiring with and acting as an unregistered agent for Iraq, engaging in illegal financial transactions and failing to report them on his taxes.

In announcing the conviction, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft called Vincent one of former President Saddam Hussein's "accomplices" in corrupting the oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to sell oil and use the money to purchase food, medicine and other humanitarian goods.

"The integrity of a program that's designed to protect innocent people from suffering at the hands of brutal regimes is a serious matter," Ashcroft said.

Ashcroft hinted that there were more indictments to come, especially now that Vincent was helping prosecutors.

The court documents in Vincent's case reveal how Hussein managed to skirt U.N. sanctions to amass billions of dollars through kickbacks and illegal oil sales between 1990 and 2003.

The international sanctions, imposed after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, forbade Baghdad to sell oil and import many goods. But they ended up hurting the Iraqi people more than the government, and the U.N. designed the oil-for-food program to ease the plight of the Iraqi public.

Under the program, Iraq would sign contracts to sell oil, and the revenue was to pass through a U.N.-controlled escrow account used only to pay for humanitarian goods. The program generated an estimated $64 billion for humanitarian goods, but Hussein was also able to collect an estimated $1.7 billion in kickbacks from the contracts, according to a 2004 CIA report.

Hussein's drive to subvert the sanctions started soon after they were imposed, and Vincent was a key player from the beginning.

Starting in 1992, three years before the oil-for-food program was created, officials in Baghdad asked Vincent to work to persuade U.S. and U.N. officials to lift or lighten the sanctions on Iraq, the indictment said. Lobbyists for foreign governments are required to register with the U.S. government, but Vincent never did -- a failure that the Justice Department seized on to indict him.

In February 1996, Vincent traveled to Baghdad and drafted agreements with Iraqi government officials that guaranteed him and others millions of dollars to help get the oil-for-food program implemented and shape it in a way that would benefit Baghdad.

Hussein refused for 13 months to sign on to the oil-for-food plan until he was given the power to select Iraq's business partners. That concession gave him the ability to reward allies with lucrative contracts. Friends of his government could buy discounted oil that could then be sold to refineries for a large profit.

Between February 1996 and July 1997, while the oil-for-food program was being put together, the government of Iraq paid millions of dollars in cash to Vincent and others, including a U.N. official he had been meeting with, Vincent said during his plea Tuesday. He did not name the U.N. official.

But between 1997 and 2001, after the oil-for-food program began, he received five contracts totaling more than 9 million barrels of oil, the rights to which he sold for between $3 million and $5 million.

Between 1998 and 2003, Vincent lobbied former U.S. officials with ties to the Clinton and Bush administrations to repeal the sanctions on Iraq.

Although those efforts were unsuccessful, Vincent was effective in promoting Iraq's cause in other ways.

In September 1999, Vincent, a Catholic, helped arrange for a delegation of Iraqi religious leaders to visit the United States and discuss the repeal of Iraq sanctions with people including former President Carter, New York Cardinal John O'Connor and the Rev. Billy Graham -- all men with influential ties to the White House.

Vincent also set up meetings between the Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations and a former U.S. government official in 2000, court documents show. In November 2001, he delivered a message from the Iraqi government to a former U.S. official about Baghdad's willingness to readmit the U.N. weapons inspectors who had been expelled from the country.

"He met with the ambassadors all the time," said an Iraqi official in New York who did not want to be named.

Vincent reported his efforts to the Iraqi Intelligence Service and other Iraqi officials, leaving a paper trail that helped incriminate him when the documents were recovered after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Among the documents is a list of those who allegedly received oil allocations under the oil-for-food program. Vincent's name is on the list, as is Benon V. Sevan's, the U.N. official who ran the oil-for-food program.

Sevan has repeatedly denied wrongdoing. U.S. Atty. David Kelley refused to say whether Sevan was the official described in Vincent's testimony.

Times staff writer T. Christian Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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