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.
The Cockerhams and Blake were charged in a criminal complaint, but a grand jury could issue a formal indictment, perhaps as soon as today, according to sources close to the case. Cockerham's bribery charge alone carries up to a 15-year sentence, according to the Justice Department. The money-laundering and conspiracy charges carry up to 20 years and 5 years, respectively. For now, Blake is free on bond and the Cockerhams are being held at Central Texas Federal Detention Facility in San Antonio. .
The case seems far removed from Castor, La., population 212, where John Cockerham grew up. When Cockerham's parents met, they had five children between them. Together, they had 12 more.
The family squeezed into a four-room house, according to interviews with Cockerham's sister Tammie Griffin of Shreveport and his cousin Carlos Cockerham. His parents slept in one bedroom, the sisters in the other. John and his brothers slept on mattresses in the living room. When it was hot, his sister said, John sometimes put a mattress on top of a car outside to take in summer breezes.
After graduating from high school with a desire to get a college education and see life beyond Castor, family members said, Cockerham enlisted in the Army and eventually found himself working as a dental specialist. Two years later, while stationed at Fort Knox, Ky., he married Melissa Jordan, a soldier from Elizabethtown, Ky.
With an ROTC scholarship, Cockerham earned a bachelor's degree at Northeastern Louisiana University in 1993 and left college as a commissioned officer. By 2004, he had picked up a master's degree in business and procurement and was living in San Antonio.
Cockerham was deployed to Camp Arifjan, near Kuwait City, in June 2004. He worked in a trailer with 27 soldiers and civilians and was given the authority to approve contracts for as much as $10 million. The Iraq war, then into its second year, was expanding contracting needs faster than the military could fully staff offices like the one in Kuwait.
According to court documents, the owner of Trans Orient General Trading in Kuwait allegedly offered Cockerham a bribe for a lucrative contract to supply bottled water. Prosecutors allege that the owner of Trans Orient and another man linked to the company met Cockerham in June in a parking lot of the Kuwaiti military base where he worked. The two men allegedly showed him a briefcase containing $300,000 cash and said it was a "good-faith" payment, with more to follow. Cockerham did not take the cash, but authorities say it was later deposited in a bank account to which Cockerham had access.
A short time later, one of the men approached Cockerham, saying he knew how he could "make some more money" with a different vendor, Green Valley Co. of Kuwait. This was followed by another alleged parking-lot meeting, in which court documents say one of the men showed Cockerham a briefcase with $300,000 in cash. Again, Cockerham didn't take the money but was allegedly told by the man that it would be placed in a U.S. bank account for him.
On Oct. 18, 2004, Cockerham signed a contract with Green Valley.
Blake, his sister, came to Kuwait in the fall of 2004 at Cockerham's suggestion that she could make more money living in Kuwait than she earned as a substitute school teacher and mall security guard just outside Dallas, investigators and Blake's lawyers said.
Robert Wilson, an attorney for Blake, confirmed that she moved to Kuwait, where she worked in sales and marketing for a Kuwaiti telecom company, earning $50,000 a year, and enrolled her two teenagers in private schools.
Also in 2004, Melissa Cockerham went to visit her husband. It was then, according to the U.S. government, that one of the first bribes was paid. While Melissa Cockerham was staying at a hotel in Kuwait, she received a call from her husband saying that someone would pick her up and take her to a bank where she could open an account and a safe-deposit box, according to the Army investigator's affidavit.
The next day, someone showed up with a shopping bag containing $800,000 in U.S. and Kuwaiti bills, the affidavit said. The unidentified man took her to a bank in Kuwait where she deposited the money into a safe-deposit box.
Authorities said Melissa Cockerham subsequently went home to Texas but returned to Kuwait for a similar mission in 2005, this time arriving with her sister and the three Cockerham children. She left her children with her sister in Kuwait and allegedly traveled to Dubai with a woman her husband had introduced her to.
In Dubai, the woman gave her a bag with $500,000 in Emirati and U.S. currency, and took her to a bank, where she opened a safe-deposit box and deposited the money, Melissa Cockerham told authorities, according to the affidavit.
She said her husband arranged the meetings with such people, including the woman in Dubai, who John Cockerham thought was the sister of the president of a U.S. company that did government contract work. Melissa Cockerham told authorities she did not want to ask her husband "too many questions."
At some point, according to the affidavit, John Cockerham started keeping a handwritten ledger of money given to him or to other people for him. Blake also kept a ledger of the $3.1 million she allegedly collected on her brother's behalf. Blake apparently used a code to identify people who paid her, writing amounts next to a variety of assumed names -- for example, Mr. & Mrs. Pastry: $340,000.
Blake's ledger, which has been seized by government authorities, also shows she took her cuts. One note read: "Carolyn's 10 %."
According to the investigator's affidavit, Blake acknowledged that she kept a ledger, but she says it was for a different purpose. She said she wanted to start a church in Africa. On a trip to South Africa, she visited a school for poor girls funded by television star Oprah Winfrey. Blake says she was inspired to do something similar, according to Wilson, her attorney. "She thought this was a calling from God," Wilson said.
Blake said her brother gave her the names of people who might want to contribute, the affidavit says. Blake said she called them and they made pledges, which she recorded on the ledger. Her attorney said she never got a dime.
Cockerham returned to San Antonio in December 2005 and was on temporary duty at Guantanamo Bay for three months at the end of 2006. On Dec. 21, 2006, investigators searched his house and found the ledgers, as well as papers showing Melissa Cockerham had opened a bank account in the Caribbean. In separate interviews on the day of the search and the day after, Cockerham and his wife admitted to the scheme, according to the affidavit. Their versions of what happened differ, however, casting more confusion on where the money went.
Melissa Cockerham said the $800,000 payment that she picked up in 2004 went to a safe-deposit box in Kuwait; John Cockerham said it went to a box in Dubai. Melissa Cockerham said the payment she collected in 2005 was $500,000 that went to a safe-deposit box in Dubai; her husband said it was $300,000 in a safe-deposit box in Kuwait.
After the home search and his discussions with authorities, Cockerham made efforts to maintain a normal life. In May, he started a nonprofit called God Anointed You Church in San Antonio. In July, he and his wife visited his home town of Castor, where they had their two sons baptized at New Friendship Baptist Church.
When they returned to San Antonio on July 22, John and Melissa Cockerham were arrested by federal authorities and charged in connection with the scheme. They were living in a new house on the base, which authorities searched. Among the items found this time were incriminating e-mails from John Cockerham, some dated as recently as July 10, and other documents that, according to the government, reflected an effort to cover up the scheme. The documents appeared to offer advice to co-conspirators on how to cover their tracks.
At a July 31 hearing, prosecutors argued that the Cockerhams were flight risks. The judge agreed, denied them bail and ordered the couple back to jail. They were re-shackled and shuffled out of the courtroom -- Melissa expressionless, John looking at friends and family members and giving a faint smile. As he walked out, his sister Mabel lowered herself to her knees, turned around, leaned on a courtroom pew and began to pray.
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.