A former Wedtech Corp. executive testified yesterday that the chief deputy to then-presidential counselor Edwin Meese III made it clear at a 1982 meeting that the White House wanted Wedtech to get a long-sought Army engine contract despite Pentagon complaints that the price was too high.
The Meese aide, James Jenkins, convened the May 19, 1982, session in a conference room of the White House basement and said "in very authoritative terms that he was controlling the meeting almost completely," said Mario E. Moreno, Wedtech's former executive vice president. When it was over, Moreno said he was "90 percent" sure Wedtech would get the multimillion-dollar award.
The top Army official summoned to the meeting, Assistant Secretary of the Army Jay R. Sculley, was visibly unhappy, Moreno testified. He said Sculley "looked like he had been dragged in like a little dog on a leash."
Moreno's testimony at the conflict-of-interest trial of former White House aide Lyn Nofziger and his partner Mark Bragg was the first public account of the meeting. The session eventually led to their indictment for illegal lobbying, and it underlies an ongoing investigation of Meese.
Nofziger, who had been hired as a Wedtech lobbyist in 1982, had been interested in helping Wedtech get the Army contract even before he left the White House early that year, Moreno said. He said the company hired Nofziger and Bragg Communications "because we were at a stalemate with the Army, and the opposition was very strong."
"We needed more powerful people -- consultants -- to get rolling again," Moreno said. Nofziger "had been one of the most powerful people in the administration, and he was familiar with the engine problem."
Defense attorneys suggested on cross-examination that San Francisco attorney E. Bob Wallach, an old friend of Meese, may have been more instrumental than Nofziger in arranging the get-together at which Jenkins presided. They also sought to depict Jenkins as a sort of honest broker trying to reconcile differences between Wedtech and Army officials whom Wedtech regarded as biased.
"We felt that way -- that the Army was not fair to us," Moreno said. He also conceded that he looked on Wallach as "an invisible man" who was "working in the background to help the company but usually other people didn't know of his existence."
Bragg's lawyer, Richard Ben-Veniste, asked if Nofziger and Bragg knew of Wallach's activities at the time they were lobbying for the Army contract.
"At the time, I believe they did not," Moreno said.
Wallach was indicted on federal racketeering charges in New York last month for allegedly taking under-the-table payments to influence Meese on Wedtech's behalf, but prosecutors at the trial here are trying to confine the case to what Nofziger and Bragg did for the company.
When Jenkins called the May meeting, the Army and Wedtech were still $10 million apart on the engine contract, Moreno said, with the South Bronx company, then known as the Welbilt Electronic Die Corp., pressing for a $34 million award and the Army refusing to go above $24 million.
Moreno, who attended the meeting with Bragg and other Wedtech representatives, said Jenkins stated "that the administration was very interested in having this contract come to Welbilt, that the Army should make every conceivable effort to give the best price to Welbilt, and that other agencies should come up with alternative financing . . . . "
The Army's Sculley "for the most part . . . took a very passive position. He didn't talk much," Moreno recalled. Moreno said a high-ranking Small Business Administration official at the session, Donald Templeman, stated that the SBA was considering a special $3 million award to Wedtech along with a $2 million contract advance.
"We realized the White House was involved now, all the way," Moreno said.
The next day, Wedtech, alerted by Bragg that the Army would "go up $1 million at most," submitted a revised proposal for $25.9 million, Moreno said. Then, on June 18, SBA Administrator James Sanders told Wedtech it would get the $3 million grant and a $2 million advance. Moreno said SBA officials subsequently advised Wedtech to submit a written request for the money "in order to complete the files."
Moreno said the White House office Nofziger headed until Jan. 22, 1982, showed interest as early as August 1981 when a Nofziger aide, Pier Talenti, visited the South Bronx plant. He said Talenti told him then "that the administration and Mr. Nofziger were very interested in having Wedtech get this contract."