Major Gets 171⁄2 Years in Iraq Contract Case

Joel Millman, Wall Street Journal, December 4, 2009

A former Army major was sentenced to a 171⁄2-year prison term on corruption charges in Wednesday in San Antonio, signaling the beginning of the end of a far-reaching Iraq War corruption probe.

As part of the probe, a growing cadre of career soldiers has confessed to siphoning millions of dollars from defense contracts in Iraq and Kuwait. The investigation into their spree already has led to the indictments of five U.S. military officers, with another dozen expected to follow.

U.S. District Judge W. Royal Furgeson’s order that former Maj. John Cockerham pay $9.6 million in restitution–money federal investigators say he collected from steering contracts to favored suppliers–speaks to the breadth of the conspiracy, which allegedly lasted for years as officers rotated in and out of the war zone. Mr. Cockerham, the ringleader, and his co-conspirators allegedly installed replacement officers to work as bag men in their absence. They expected the bag men to collect as much as $5.4 million in kickbacks from contracts worth over $110 million, according to court documents.

So far, three former Army majors and one lieutenant colonel have pleaded guilty to money-laundering, bribery and other charges. Another major is awaiting trial, while sentencing of former Maj. Christopher Murray is slated to occur in Georgia in two weeks.

Two others have entered not-guilty pleas. A Justice Department spokeswoman says former Sgt. Terry Hall and Maj. Eddie Pressley are due to go on trial in April.

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Unlike the allegations of violence that dogged security contractor Blackwater USA, the case of the Cockerham crew spools out more like Sidney Lumet’s films about corruption in big-city police departments. Bribes and kickbacks allegedly involved relatively routine contracts to provide drinking water, laundry and latrine services to military bases, awarded by a small group of officers who seemed to be barely supervised by senior officers.

Almost every suspect comes from the same background: African-Americans who rose from childhood poverty to successful military careers.

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Since then [December 2006], reams of court documents from overlapping cases reveal a pattern of corruption. Army contracting officers, almost all of them African Americans, reached out to African-American businessmen, seeking bribes in exchange for contracting deals.

By the time investigators were closing in, the Cockerham scheme allegedly had spread to new players, minority contractors launched by retired African-American soldiers who already had been vetted by the Pentagon. Maj. Cockerham allegedly hoped to harvest future bribes from them.

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