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July 23rd, 2007 - Major Jailed in Bribes Case

News article from San Antonio Express-News

Summary of the Green Valley Corruption Case

Major Jailed in Bribes Case

 

By Gary Contreras

San Antonio Express-News

July 23, 2007

 

Federal authorities on Monday arrested an Army major stationed at Fort Sam Houston on charges that he took almost $10 million in bribes and expected $5.4 million more on military contracts he had rigged.

 

A handful of agencies, including investigative arms of the Justice and Defense departments, arrested Maj. John Cockerham, 41, and his wife, Melissa, 40, in the pre-dawn hours Monday as the couple returned to Fort Sam Houston from Louisiana.

 

They appeared later in federal court in San Antonio, where a judge ordered them held without bail pending a bond hearing scheduled for Wednesday. Melissa Cockerham is accused of helping her husband receive and hide some of the bribe payoffs. The two are charged with accepting bribes, defrauding the United States, money laundering and conspiracy.

 

Their arrests are but a piece of an ongoing probe in which the Defense and Justice departments are trying to identify the companies Cockerham allegedly accepted kickbacks from. They also have identified offshore bank accounts that are suspected to have some of the illegal proceeds, court records show.

 

Investigators with the Army's Criminal Investigations Division and the Defense Department's Criminal Investigative Service, as well as the FBI, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and other agencies, are looking at every contract Cockerham handled - from bottled water to laundry services for American troops in Kuwait and Iraq.

 

The secrets largely unraveled in December, after agents seized a hand-written ledger at the couple's home on Fort Sam Houston. John Cockerham is a contracting and procurement officer and was assigned to a division within U.S. Army South, which has its headquarters at Fort Sam Houston.

 

Criminal complaint affidavits unsealed Monday detail allegations that Cockerham was involved in far more graft than the $7 million reported in a document that was made public in federal court in Detroit last week.

 

Brian Sierra, a spokesman for the Justice Department, confirmed the arrests but declined to comment beyond the affidavits.

 

The payoffs included hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash stuffed in briefcases and bags that were accepted by Melissa Cockerham and others for John Cockerham, the affidavits said. Much of the graft occurred in 2005 and was deposited in banks in the Middle East and much of it appears to have been moved to offshore banks in the Caribbean, according to the affidavits.

 

"In total, the ledger records that J. Cockerham received $9.6 million in bribe payments from at least eight contractors and anticipated receiving $5.4 million more," said the affidavits, filed in San Antonio on Monday.

 

The affidavits said the ledger listed six associates of John Cockerham, including his wife, who received money on his behalf. Some of the money Melissa Cockerham received was deposited in a safe deposit box for a business in Kuwait she and another woman operated called Worldwide Trading, which is suspected of being used to launder the bribes.

 

The Dec. 12 search also netted numerous pages comparing the benefits of various offshore banking havens; account application documents from the First Caribbean International Bank in the name of John Cockerham; a letter from First Caribbean dated June 14, 2005, memorializing a visit by one of his alleged associates; and information establishing offshore bank accounts in Melissa Cockerham's name, including at a bank in Grand Cayman.

 

Also found were 15 pages of Internet research into the advantage of offshore accounts in Barbados; four pages on the anti-money laundering statutes enacted by the Cayman Islands; and information about several companies' commercial products aimed at safeguarding offshore assets, including "Bulletproof Asset Protection."

 

Agents also seized a handwritten note reflecting John Cockerham's interest in two books: "Crime and Secrecy: The Use of Offshore Banks and Companies," and "Offshore Haven Banks, Trusts and Companies: The Business of Crime in the Euromarket." A second handwritten page that was seized contained notes on how to purchase property through a friend in order to protect the identity of the true owner, the affidavits said.

 

The Cockerhams confessed partially to their roles after agents confronted them with the ledger, and then admitted further involvement after more questioning, the affidavit said. Also found during the Dec. 12 search were receipts from banks in Jordan and Detroit that showed hundreds of thousands of dollars in deposits that agents have linked to John Cockerham or his alleged associates.

 

Among the seized documentation was information about a bank account that agents found contained nearly $175,000 in Detroit, which the government is trying to keep through a civil forfeiture action in federal court there. The account was allegedly opened by a man identified as Megde "Mike" Ayesh Ismail, who is also charged in the complaint, and is a suspected payoff for an $800,000 bottled-water contract that John Cockerham is accused to have steered to Green Valley, a contractor in Kuwait that employed Ismail, court records show.

 

Yet even while the probe was ongoing, the Cockerhams appeared to go about their daily lives. John Cockerham, for instance, showed up at June's rally for presidential candidate Barack Obama at Sunset Station.

 

"Hello Congressman Sir. It would truly be an honor to have you as the new Commander and Chief for the Armed Forces. Thanks for taking the time to stop by San Antonio and address the local Texans (sic) concerns," Cockerham wrote on the DailyKos politics blog.

 

And as investigators chase offshore accounts for the money, the Cockerhams made a puzzling request for high-dollar defendants. They asked for court-appointed lawyers. U.S. Magistrate Judge Pamela Mathy granted the request, at least through Wednesday's bail hearing.

 

External link: http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/metro/stories/MYSA072407.01A.general_charged.34e1363.html

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