By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
An Army contracting officer has pleaded guilty to involvement in a $9 million procurement scandal in which his wife was accused of carrying shopping bags full of cash to banks in the Middle East. Investigators say it is the largest bribery case out of the war in Iraq.
Maj. John Cockerham, 43, of San Antonio, pleaded guilty to bribery, conspiracy and money laundering. Cockerham's wife, Melissa Cockerham, 41, also pleaded guilty to money laundering. His sister Carolyn Blake, 45, of Sunnyvale, Tex., who was also allegedly involved in the scheme, is scheduled for trial in October on charges of money-laundering and conspiracy.
The Cockerham case reads in part like a spy novel, with $300,000 in cash delivered in a Kuwait parking lot. Handwritten ledgers, using such code names as "Mr. & Mrs. Pastry," recorded who had paid money. The case kicked off a widespread investigation into how the Pentagon procures goods and services in the Iraq war. An Army oversight commission found there were poor checks and balances in place and a need to hire more skilled contracting officers.
John Cockerham told prosecutors that starting in 2004, he was involved in a complex bribery and money-laundering scheme while being deployed to Kuwait. In exchange for awarding illegal contracts for such supplies as bottled water, he received more than $9 million in bribes. Investigators have said he expected to get $5.4 million more.
Once he agreed to take the money, Cockerham told the contractors to pay his wife, his sister and others. His wife admitted that she accepted more than $1 million in bribe payments on her husband's behalf. She allegedly carried the cash in shopping bags and deposited the money in safe-deposit boxes at banks in Dubai and Kuwait.
The couple lived modestly in a house on an Army base in San Antonio and were described as being involved with their three children and their church.
John Cockerham faces up to 40 years in prison; his wife could face as much as 20 years, plus fines.
Cockerham and his wife made the plea agreements in January, but the deals were kept under seal until yesterday because the couple is cooperating with investigators, who are continuing to investigate others who might be involved in the scheme.
The Army has said it is pursuing more than 90 criminal probes involving contract fraud and abuse in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.