U.S. Uncovers Iraq Bribe Case

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007

U.S. officials call it the largest bribery case to come out of the Iraq war. But where did the $9.6 million go?

Prosecutors say an Army major from Texas who worked as a contracting officer took bribes from military contractors, having his wife and sister collect money on his behalf. Investigators allege the three received $9.6 million and expected to get $5.4 million more from at least eight contractors for giving them favorable contracts.

Maj. John L. Cockerham, 41, of San Antonio, was charged with conspiracy, money-laundering and bribery. Cockerham's wife, Melissa, 40, also of San Antonio, and his sister, Carolyn Blake, 44, of Sunnyvale, Tex., were charged with money-laundering and conspiracy. All three have pleaded not guilty.

With $44 billion spent so far on the reconstruction of Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, relatively few corruption cases have surfaced, and none rivals this one. The office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction has found cases of fraud that led to 13 arrests. Eight cases await trial, and 26 others are under investigation by the Justice Department. Federal authorities said they expect to arrest more civilians and military personnel in similar schemes.

The Cockerhams and Blake were arrested in late July after investigators searched the Cockerhams' house at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio and allegedly found evidence linking them to the bribery scheme. Aspects of the case read like a spy novel: a briefcase with $300,000 in cash in a Kuwaiti parking lot; handwritten ledgers that identify money sources with code names like Destiny Carter; and instructions telling co-conspirators to, in a pinch, toss safe-deposit keys out a window, stash key documents in the bosom and, lastly, destroy the instructions.

Defense attorneys, however, say the Cockerhams and Blake are hardworking, church-going people. The Cockerhams have confessed to taking money in exchange for the awarding of contracts, according to an affidavit from an Army criminal investigator, but put the amount at a little more than $1 million. Blake told investigators the money was to be used to set up a church, according to the affidavit.

It is unclear whether the Cockerhams have since tried to disavow their alleged confessions, and John Cockerham's attorney, Jimmy Parks Jr., would not comment on the case or his strategy. Two of the eight contractors identified so far are Kuwaiti companies. Prosecutors have not said who the other firms are or where they are from.

Investigators have so far identified $415,000 of the $9.6 million allegedly paid out -- including a receipt for a $240,000 deposit in a safe-deposit box at Jordan National Bank and $175,000 from a Bank of America account that Cockerham allegedly intended to draw funds on using an ATM card.

With the rest of the money unaccounted for, some white-collar crime experts say, defense lawyers could present their case almost as if it were a murder trial without a body. "You don't have the money, much like you don't have a body," said Peter J. Henning, a law professor at Wayne State University. "You don't have to have it, but it helps to have the cold, hard cash."

By all accounts, the Cockerhams had not recently gone on any visible spending sprees. As of July 31, the most recent hearing in the case, the couple owed $13,000 in car payments and were driving a 2004 Toyota minivan and 1993 Isuzu pickup. John Cockerham reported an additional $54,000 in debt, in part from credit cards and student loans.

Parks said after the hearing that his client was sent to Kuwait as a contracting officer "ill-prepared and ill-equipped to handle the situation."

"How can a guy that low on the totem pole be the only one sitting in the courtroom without anyone else?" Parks said.

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