By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 23, 2007
NEW YORK, Feb. 22 -- South Korean businessman and influence peddler Tongsun Park was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison for his role in the bribery scandal surrounding the United Nation's oil-for-food program for Iraq a decade ago.
Park, 71, admitted taking more than $2.5 million from Saddam Hussein's government to bribe senior U.N. officials to persuade them to ease economic sanctions against Iraq after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He was convicted in July of acting as an unregistered agent of Iraq; he was to have set up a back channel between then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and then-Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
The sentence was the maximum possible. U.S. District Judge Denny Chin also ordered Park to forfeit $1.2 million of his assets and fined him $15,000. Chin said Park had "acted out of greed" and "blatantly disregarded the law."
"You either bribed a U.N. official or you were acting as if you were going to bribe a U.N. official," Chin told Park, who stood impassively in the courtroom. He was taken into custody after saying goodbye to friends.
Park's trial and a U.N. investigation exposed a secretive network of businessmen, Washington politicians and other insiders who joined forces in the early 1990s to ease U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990. Their efforts eventually led to the $64 million oil-for-food program allowing Iraq to sell its oil to pay for humanitarian goods.
Park's role in the scheme marked an extraordinary comeback -- and another amazing fall -- for a man who was indicted in the 1970s "Koreagate" influence-peddling scandal that roiled Washington. He had funneled hundreds of thousands in cash from the South Korean government to influential members of Congress. After the case broke, Park fled to South Korea. But after bribery charges against him were dropped, he agreed to return to the United States and testify before Congress about his activities.
During that era, Park was a fixture in Washington political circles, hosting parties at his historic George Town Club. His friends and clients included the late House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) and William E. Timmons, an influential Republican lobbyist who once joined forces with Park in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the U.S. ouster of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.
"He was always known as a man who was willing to bring two people together for the right price," said Mark G. Califano, a former U.N. investigator who co-wrote "Good Intentions Corrupted," a book based on the findings of a U.N. probe led by former U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Paul A. Volcker.
Despite his past, Park insinuated himself with Boutros-Ghali in the early 1990s, acting as an unofficial intelligence adviser on issues including the Korean Peninsula and Japan. He provided "first-class information," "knew everybody" and was "an integral part" of Washington's political elite, Boutros-Ghali told a team of U.N. investigators probing corruption in the humanitarian program.
Park was also valued by Boutros-Ghali and U.N. insiders for his capacity to secure money and political support for a variety of U.N. causes, including the organization's 50th anniversary celebration.
He also set up meetings with influential political leaders, including Rangel, now chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, to reinvigorate Boutros-Ghali's unsuccessful 1996 reelection campaign after the Clinton administration decided to veto his candidacy.
"It was always interesting to talk to Tongsun, about the travels he had done, relationships with people, how he was seeking to build a better world, said George Dalley, Rangel's chief of staff. "Whatever purpose he might have had, he was good at masking it. That is my best explanation of why a person even with a shadowy past could remake himself and develop a relationship that would be a positive one with a guy like Charlie Rangel."
"I guess now it's for sure that his reputation and his memory is all going to be the fixer, the hustler," Dalley said. "For a while I guess I saw a guy trying to redeem himself from his past and doing something that was totally different. But apparently it wasn't."
Park's foray into Iraq diplomacy began in 1992 when he joined forces with Samir A. Vincent, a former Iraqi Olympic athlete who had close ties to officials in Baghdad and Washington.
Vincent had been unable to persuade Iraqi officials to allow the American Red Cross to oversee a humanitarian relief program for the country.
Park and Vincent hatched a plan to solicit millions from the Iraqis to try to bribe Boutros-Ghali and other officials to develop an oil-for-food program that was favorable to the Iraqi government.
In 1996, Hussein's government agreed to pay $5 million to Park and $10 million to Vincent, a portion of which was to be used to bribe unnamed U.N. officials. But Park received only a fraction of his cut, more than $700,000, in old bills stuffed into shopping bags.
The following year, Park traveled to Baghdad to try to collect the rest. Aziz provided him with $1 million in a cardboard box, which he exchanged for a $988,885 check that was invested in a Canadian company controlled by a then-senior U.N. official.
The federal investigation into the oil-for-food program has expanded into a wider probe of other corruption at the United Nations and has resulted in the indictment or conviction of 14 people. Vincent pleaded guilty and testified against Park at the trial.
But there was no evidence in Park's case that he and Vincent used the cash to bribe Boutros-Ghali.
Califano said a "fairly detailed review" of Boutros-Ghali's financial records yielded no evidence of inappropriate payments. "We think the Iraqis probably got ripped off," Califano said.