A federal prosecutor unsealed an indictment Friday charging a veteran Texas oil tycoon, two Swiss associates and three of their companies with paying millions in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's government in exchange for rights to buy discounted Iraqi crude under the U.N. oil-for-food program.
Oscar S. Wyatt Jr., the former chairman of Coastal Corp. who once flew his corporate jet to Baghdad to ask Hussein to release American oil workers held hostage there, was arrested by FBI agents Friday morning at his Houston home. The FBI said he was later released on a $2.5 million secured bond. Michael J. Garcia, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said he would seek the extradition of Wyatt's two partners, Catalina del Socorro Miguel and Mohammed Saidji.
The three executives and three companies were indicted on four counts of wire fraud and engaging in prohibited financial transactions with Iraq. If convicted, the three oil traders could face up to 62 years in jail and millions of dollars in fines and be compelled to make restitution to the Iraqi people. Garcia also intends to seek criminal forfeiture of more than $1 billion in assets, officials said.
"The oil-for-food program was designed to provide humanitarian relief to the Iraqi people," Garcia said in a statement. "These defendants undermined those relief efforts to line their own pockets."
Wyatt declined to comment on the charges. His attorney, Carl Parker, said in a statement that "Mr. Wyatt has violated no laws and will vigorously defend against these charges." Efforts to reach Miguel and Saidji at their office in Switzerland were unsuccessful. The names of the companies charged are Nafta Petroleum Co., Mednafta Trading Co. and Sarenco.
Wyatt, 81, played a major role in the Iraqi oil trade over the decades. He gained international fame in 1990 when he flew to Baghdad and met with Hussein to negotiate release of 21 oil workers.
The Texas oilman subsequently lobbied U.S. officials to lift sanctions on Iraq that were imposed on Baghdad following its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
The Iraqi government rewarded Wyatt for his support by providing him with the first opportunity to purchase oil -- 11.35 million barrels -- through the U.N. oil-for-food program, Garcia alleged.
Wyatt, Miguel and Saidji began paying illegal kickbacks to Iraq in 2000, Garcia alleged. A statement released by Garcia's office cited $1.5 million in payments to a Jordanian bank account between August 2001 and April 2002. The Geneva-based Sarenco paid an additional $200,000 illegal surcharge on behalf of Wyatt in 2000, according to the statement. The traders sought to conceal the payments by using agents to make the deposits on their behalf.
The U.N. oil-for-food program was established in December 1996 to provide relief to Iraqis enduring years of grinding sanctions. Under its terms, Iraq was permitted to sell oil to buy food, medicine and pay war reparations. But Iraq circumvented U.N. controls designed to prevent the country's oil revenue from falling into the hands of Iraq's leaders, who raked in more than $2.6 billion in illicit profits from the program, according to a U.N.-appointed commission probing abuses in the program.
Wyatt joins a growing number of U.S. and European businessmen and diplomats who have been indicted for allegedly paying bribes to the former Iraqi regime. The U.S. attorney's office has issued charges against 10 others as part of a wide-ranging probe into U.N. corruption.
David B. Chalmers Jr., a Texas oil executive also named in Friday's indictment, was indicted in April on similar charges. Chalmers denied wrongdoing. Wyatt and Chalmers also allegedly conspired with Iraqi officials to lobby U.N. officials responsible for oil sales to approve inflated oil prices that would allow traders to pay the illicit kickbacks and still make a profit.
The United Nations, meanwhile, announced Friday it was suspending the world's largest catering company, Britain's Compass Group PLC, from its list of registered vendors. The United Nations is investigating whether a subsidiary of the company received insider information on a contract to provide food and other goods to U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia.
Researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.