- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2005

An Iraqi-American businessman pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court in a conspiracy to divert to front companies and secret bank accounts hundreds of millions of dollars intended to buy food and medicine for poor Iraqis in the United Nations oil-for-food program.

Samir A. Vincent, 64, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Annandale resident, entered the plea in U.S. District Court in New York, admitting to illegally receiving allocations for more than 9 million barrels of oil between 1996 and 2003, the rights to which he sold for millions of dollars.

Prosecutors said Vincent, the first to be charged in the so-called United Nations oil-for-food scandal, may have received between $3 million and $5 million in the oil deals.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, who said the guilty plea was part of an agreement by Vincent to cooperate in the Justice Department’s ongoing United Nations oil-for-fool investigation, said Vincent admitted his ties to Saddam Hussein’s regime. Vincent consulted with and repeatedly received direction from the now-deposed Iraqi dictator concerning payments to illegally act as Iraq’s agent in the United States, Mr. Ashcroft said.

“The integrity of a program that’s designed to protect innocent people from suffering at the hands of brutal regimes is a serious matter,” Mr. Ashcroft said. “This particular conviction represents that we take this matter seriously, and the fact that this is not a concluded investigation but it is an ongoing one, indicates that we will continue to take it seriously.”

Vincent, who surrendered to FBI agents yesterday in New York, pleaded guilty to a four-count information, admitting to one count each of conspiracy to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and acting as an unregistered agent; one count of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act; and one count of false statements in income tax returns.

If convicted, he faces up to 28 years in prison — which could be reduced based on his cooperation.

Mr. Ashcroft said the United Nations’ $64 billion oil-for-food program was designed so that “innocent Iraqi people would not unduly suffer from the United Nations sanctions lodged against the brutal Hussein regime” in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

But, he said, Saddam’s regime — working with accomplices — corrupted the program, depriving the Iraqi people of food and medicine, and undermining international sanctions.

Beginning in 2000 and continuing through 2003, Mr. Ashcroft said officials of the Iraqi regime conditioned oil allocations on the willingness of those selected to “pay to the regime in secret a percentage of the total amount of each oil contract sold.”

“The Iraqi regime directed that these surcharges, which totaled at least several hundred million dollars, be paid to front companies or bank accounts under the control of the Iraqi regime in various countries in the Middle East and elsewhere,” he said.

Saddam is believed to have received $1.5 billion in kickbacks from the oil-for-food program.

Mr. Ashcroft said Vincent also admitted to lobbying U.S. and U.N. officials to repeal sanctions against Iraq, and to support the oil-for-food program. He said Vincent also traveled to Baghdad in 1996 and drafted agreements with Iraqi government officials that guaranteed millions of dollars of compensation for himself and others if they were able to get the oil-for-food program implemented.

“Between 1998 and 2003, Vincent lobbied former officials of the United States government, who maintained close contacts to high ranking members of both the Clinton and Bush administrations, in an unsuccessful effort to persuade the United States government to support a repeal of sanctions against Iraq,” he said.

Mr. Ashcroft said Vincent reported the results of those consultations to the Iraqi Intelligence Service and other officials of the Iraqi government.

The attorney general declined to say whether the plea agreement and Vincent’s willingness to cooperate in the investigation would lead to other arrests. Kojo Annan, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s son, received payments until early 2004 from a firm that had a contract in the oil-for-food program. The secretary-general has appointed an independent panel, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, to investigate the matter.

Mr. Volcker, in a statement, said his office has been “fully aware of the involvement of Samir Vincent” and he hoped to interview him soon as part of his investigation.

A sentencing hearing in the case has tentatively been set for late March.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said Vincent’s guilty plea “illustrates how seriously the United States regards those criminals drawn to the corrupt U.N. program, and the commitment by the Department of Justice to prosecute the guilty.

“Today’s conviction provides fresh evidence of criminal efforts to undermine international sanctions targeting Saddam Hussein’s corrupt regime,” Mr. Hyde said. “Mr. Vincent’s plea agreement includes references to his efforts to lobby U.N. and U.S. officials for a weakening of Iraqi sanctions, a matter of urgent and grave concern to this committee.”

Mr. Hyde’s committee has been investigating suspected abuses in the United Nations oil-for-food program.

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