The War Profiteers - War Crimes, Kidnappings & Torture
July 28th, 2007 - S.A. Majorís Arrest is Linked to Iraq Reconstruction
By Gary Contreras
San Antonio Express-News
July 28, 2007
The $15 million bribery case linked to an Army major stationed at Fort Sam Houston is the largest of the Iraq reconstruction effort, according to the head of a federal agency Congress established to keep tabs on the taxpayer money used in the rebuilding.
"This is the largest bribery case that's come out of the Iraq reconstruction experience," Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, told the San Antonio Express-News in an interview Wednesday.
Bowen told the Senate Judiciary Committee in March that, at that time, the largest case his agency had investigated involved a U.S. businessman who paid $4 million to high-ranking Army officers and other public officials to get $8.6 million in military contracts.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to confirm reports that the case unfolding here is the biggest bribery scandal in U.S. military history.
The investigation that this week snared Maj. John L. Cockerham, 41, and his wife, Melissa Cockerham, 40, grew Wednesday as authorities with the Justice and Defense departments took John Cockerham's sister, Carolyn Blake, a former schoolteacher, into custody in Dallas. She is charged with conspiring with the Cockerhams to accept $3.1 million in bribes from contractors and laundering money.
After a brief hearing in federal court in Dallas Wednesday afternoon, Blake, 44, pleaded not guilty and was ordered held pending a bail hearing scheduled for Monday.
Court records obtained Wednesday show agents are also looking into a property in downtown San Antonio they suspect was bought by the Cockerhams using an intermediary. The address of the property and other details of the purchase and transfer were not disclosed.
The Cockerhams were arrested Monday on federal charges alleging John Cockerham brokered deals with handpicked contractors in Kuwait in exchange for kickbacks that the women helped pick up and launder. Melissa Cockerham, for instance, is accused of accepting bags or briefcases stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs for her husband from contractors in Kuwait.
During their own bail hearing, the Cockerhams were faced with four Justice Department prosecutors and learned they'll spend almost a week in jail. Confusion arose about who would represent the Cockerhams: lawyers paid for by taxpayers or those hired by the defendants. The hearing was postponed until Tuesday.
Cockerham, a contracting and procurement officer now assigned to the Army's 410th Contracting Support Brigade at Fort Sam Houston, is accused of taking $9.6 million in bribes and was to receive another $5.4 million for steering lucrative deals to contractors in Kuwait and Iraq.
Ledgers and codes
Court records said the bribes were documented in a hand-written ledger agents seized in December 2006 at a home the Cockerhams occupied on Fort Sam Houston before they moved two houses next door. During the same search, another ledger, written in code, was discovered documenting $3.1 million in suspected bribes for John Cockerham.
The bribes eclipse the previous high that the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction had identified: $4million.
The agency, SIGIR for short, was established by Congress in 2004 to oversee the taxpayer money spent on the reconstruction of Iraq, which began in 2003. Congress has appropriated $44 billion for the reconstruction efforts and 70 percent has been spent, Bowen said.
The Cockerham case was among 65 active fraud investigations by Bowen's agency into military contracts in the Middle East. His agency has referred about 30 of those cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. Bowen said he is barred from estimating the total value of the contracts involved in the Cockerham case alone because the investigation is ongoing.
Several sources have told the Express-News that Cockerham is only a piece of a massive military contract scandal in the Middle East, and allege other military officials with higher rank than Cockerham are involved.
Bowen said he could not comment regarding those allegations.
"That's where I can't talk. ... This is an ongoing investigation," Bowen said. "The rest of the story will be told over time as the investigation unfolds."
He assured taxpayers that his agency is keeping tabs on how its money is being spent and said the next quarterly report to Congress is to be issued next week.
It was unclear how the government learned about the bribes to Cockerham, but various sources told the Express-News that the case is one in a pattern of contract-rigging and bribery cases at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, involving multiple members of the military, including some who died under mysterious circumstances as investigators closed in. A review by the Express-News of Army newsletters, news clips and other materials document a series of bribery scandals at the camp that have never been fully explained by the military.
After their hearing, the Cockerhams - cuffed and shackled - were loaded by federal marshals into a van to be delivered back to jail. Turning to television and newspaper reporters, John Cockerham appeared to claim a government conspiracy was behind the prosecution and asked that the American Civil Liberties Union be notified.
"We're suffering injustice in the name of justice," Cockerham shouted. "I guess we can thank the Department of Justice for this."
Later, attorney Brent K. De La Paz, who is representing Melissa Cockerham, said the public should not forget that the allegations are merely that: allegations.
"There's a lot of things I would love to know where the government is getting their information from," De La Paz said. "Short of having something with a signature, I don't think there's anything there beyond an allegation. I'd hate to see a rush to judgment and then later to see that it was not exactly the way it was presented."
Christine Tallie, another of John Cockerham's sisters, told reporters outside court that her brother is upstanding and that she was shocked and "in denial" regarding the allegations.
"All I know is he's a man of integrity," Tallie said. "He's an honest person. ... He's a true man of God."
Checks and balances
The fraud in the Cockerham case, according to court records, was well disguised because the Cockerhams allegedly kept a low profile.
A retired high-level Army official in San Antonio familiar with the military contracting process said there is a system of checks and balances. Layers of lawyers provide legal and ethical checks, but fraud and graft may not be caught until down the line, he said.
"When you start dealing in contracts of this magnitude, our audits and our quality controls are such that eventually somebody is going to catch you," said the official, who requested anonymity because he still deals with the military. "This guy was low-level, but apparently was doing some big-time stuff."John Cockerham, a native of Shreveport, La., enlisted with the U.S. Army in 1989 and had been a commissioned officer since 1993, the same year he graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He has held a number of contracting and procurement positions that included stints at Camp Arifjan, headquarters for the Army's Area Support Group.
Shari Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Army's Human Resources Command in Washington, D.C., said the military's records show Cockerham was assigned to the Area Support Group in 2004, and he was first stationed at Camp Arifjan.
Court records state that Cockerham spent 10 months at Camp Arifjan, working with a contracting division, and he moved with that division to Camp Doha, Kuwait, in June 2005. The division later was moved back to Camp Arifjan, and Cockerham also moved with it, the court documents state. Both camps are near Kuwait City.
Lawrence said Cockerham was transferred in January 2006 to the Army Contracting Agency's Missions Division at Fort Sam Houston, initially as a contract officer for Southwest Asia and then handling contracts for the Americas, an area covered by U.S. Army South. Lawrence said Cockerham's current assignment is the 410th Contracting Support Brigade.
The contract-rigging he is accused of occurred during 2004 and 2005 in the Middle East, and court records say some of the deals were cut in Camp Arifjan's parking lot. Cockerham steered contracts aimed at support, like bottled water and laundry services, for U.S. troops helping with the Iraq reconstruction effort.
One payoff Melissa Cockerham told agents about involved a bag containing $800,000, and the briber took her to a Kuwaiti bank to put the money in a safe deposit box, according to court records. Another exchange involved a female briber and the payoff was $500,000 in another bag, the records show.
"M. Cockerham explained that J. Cockerham made the arrangements for her meetings with these individuals and stated that she did not want to ask her husband 'too many questions,'" according to a partially unsealed search warrant affidavit obtained by the Express-News.
The contracts involved at least eight contractors, not named by investigators. Federal court records in Detroit, however, identified two of the companies as TransOrient and Green Valley. The military debarred Green Valley in May for two years, meaning federal agencies are prohibited from doing business with the company because of allegations that it was involved in getting contracts through bribery or fraud. TransOrient does not appear on the military's list of excluded companies. The Express-News was unable to reach officials for either company.
"Corruption within the U.S. program in Iraq, while egregious where we have found it, has been a relatively minor component of the overall effort, as measured against the total U.S. investment in Iraq," Bowen's statement to Congress said. "Waste, on the other hand, has been a significantly more serious issue. SIGIR's audits have documented examples of this waste, and we are currently planning a forensic audit of the entire Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, which will provide more detailed answers down the road."
But while Bowen's agency aims to root out waste, fraud and corruption, it has faced criticism of its own.
For more than a year, a multi-agency investigation has been focusing on allegations that Bowen's office is wasting funds on a project to produce a book on lessons learned during the reconstruction, USA Today reported this year.
On Wednesday, Bowen attributed the allegations to ex-employees of his agency.
The numbers behind the case
An investigation targeting an Army major at Fort Sam Houston is the biggest bribery scandal to come out of the reconstruction of Iraq. Here are some highlights of the case:
- Defendants: Army Maj. John L. Cockerham, 41; his wife, Melissa Cockerham, 40; and John Cockerham's sister, Carolyn Blake, 44.
- Cockerham is alleged to have gotten $9.6 million in bribes and expected $5.4 million more, most of it while he was stationed in Kuwait in 2004 and 2005. Blake, who lives in suburban Dallas, worked for a company in Kuwait and is accused of accepting $3.1 million in bribes on behalf of John Cockerham, and keeping $313,512 as a fee. Melissa Cockerham is accused of accepting millions in bribes for her husband.
- Cockerham home at 550 Graham Road on Fort Sam Houston searched Dec. 21, 2006. Agents searched Cockerham's current home at 554 Graham Road, Fort Sam Houston, on Saturday. Blake's home in Sunnyvale, near Dallas, searched by the feds on Wednesday.
- At least eight contractors involved in graft, including TransOrient and Green Valley Co., both based in Kuwait.
- Cockerham case is one of 65 investigations into contracting fraud by the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction; nearly 30 cases referred to the Justice Department for prosecution.
- John L. Cockerham and Melissa J. Jordan (now Cockerham) married in 1986 in Kentucky. He entered the Army in 1989, and was commissioned in 1993. He has held various positions as a contract and procurement officer for the Army. Now stationed with 410th Contracting Support Brigade at Fort Sam Houston.
Sources: Court documents, interviews with defense lawyers and federal authorities.