The War Profiteers - War Crimes, Kidnappings & Torture
December 3rd, 2009 - Iraq Bribery Nets 17½-Year Sentence
By Guillermo Contreras
San Antonio Express-News
December 3, 2009
To the federal government, the $9.6 million in cash that military contractors gave then-Army Maj. John L. Cockerham was nothing less than bribery.
But even as he was sentenced to prison Wednesday, Cockerham claimed the money was “gifts, blessings and appreciation” for helping the private companies gain entry during the Iraq war into an already corrupt system.
Cockerham, 43, a former contracting officer, is being sent to federal prison for 17½ years for a massive bribery scheme that made him the unofficial poster boy for wartime military corruption.
His efforts to use his wife, his sister and a niece as pawns to pick up the bribes or help cover up his crimes also cost them their freedom, as each was sentenced Wednesday to shorter prison terms.
Senior U.S. District Court Judge W. Royal Furgeson also ordered Cockerham to pay $9.6 million in restitution - the amount investigators say he collected from steering bottled water contracts to certain companies.
Investigators say Cockerham expected to get $5.4 million more in kickbacks before his scheme was discovered, and had given $110 million in contracts to the companies while he was stationed in Kuwait.
Only $3 million has been recovered, though prosecutors argued that Cockerham had some of the money returned to the bribe-payers so the government wouldn't seize it.
Investigators from the Army, Defense Department, FBI and other agencies closed in on him in 2006 while he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston, where they found in his home coded ledgers that linked him to the graft. He pleaded guilty to bribery, money laundering and conspiracy.
“From 2004 to 2005, Maj. Cockerham participated in what has been reported to be the largest (Defense Department) corruption case in history,” Justice Department prosecutor Mark Pletcher told the judge. “It's a crime of a proportion we have not seen again out of any theater.”
Cockerham's scheme read like a spy novel, with shopping bags or briefcases stuffed with cash handed off to Cockerham's designated recipients.
His wife, Melissa Cockerham, admitted picking up $1.4 million for him and putting it in safety deposit boxes. His sister, Carolyn Blake, transported $3.1 million - of which she was to keep 10 percent. His niece, Nyree Pettaway, said she helped him create cover stories for the millions of dollars he was receiving and traveled to Kuwait to return more than $3 million in bribe proceeds.
Cockerham also made trips to the Caribbean to investigate offshore bank accounts, and opened at least one in Barbados, Pletcher said.
John Cockerham had faced as much as 40 years in prison, but because he has cooperated against others involved in corruption - including two fellow Army officers taking bribes with him - prosecutors convinced the judge to knock down his sentence by more than half.
The judge refused requests from Cockerham's lawyer, Jimmy Parks Jr., to go any lower than 210 months. Unlike most defendants who apologize for their conduct, Cockerham was circumspect.
He first recited the Lord's prayer in broken Spanish and then in English. He then told the judge he didn't go out and seek bribes, and that he did not use any of the money to enrich himself.
Cockerham portrayed himself as ignorant of international banking systems and a victim of contractors who preyed on his “religiousness” and faith.
He said the contractors complained to him during his first months in Kuwait that only two unspecified companies were getting all the work because some people, including a colonel above him, were giving it to their “friends” who paid them off.
Cockerham said he complained to a general and was retaliated against for speaking out. But it seemed to change the fortunes of the contractors who complained, Cockerham said.
“Many of them made offers of appreciation,” Cockerham said. “I told them ‘no' numerous, numerous times.”
But the contractors insisted, and he took their offerings. He said he planned to use some money to start a church.
“In my hearts of hearts, I believed it was a blessing,” Cockerham said. “I began to rationalize it.”
But when Cockerham kept minimizing his conduct, the normally patient judge angrily cut him off.
“That is not what religion is about. It's about righteousness and doing the right thing,” Furgeson snapped. “What you did ... was not the right thing. I understand your statement, but I don't accept it.”
The judge sentenced Melissa Cockerham, 43, to 41 months in prison and ordered her to pay $1.4 million in restitution. He sentenced Blake, 46, to 70 months and ordered her to pay $3.1 million. The judge gave Pettaway, 36, a year and one day in prison, and ordered h er to pay $5 million in restitution.