Oil-for-Food Scandal Reaches Court
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
UNITED NATIONS – A Korean businessman, Tongsun Park, opened a “back channel” to top U.N. officials, including a former secretary-general, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and sold his links to the world organization to Saddam Hussein’s government for millions of dollars, a federal prosecutor told a New York jury yesterday.
In the first case related to the oil-for-food scandal to be tried in America, opening remarks by Assistant District Attorney Michael Farbiarz and testimony by the Iraqi-American businessman Samir Vincent promised a rare peek into the backrooms and inner workings of Washington, Baghdad, and Turtle Bay.
Mr. Vincent and the Korean businessman, Mr. Park, 71, “went to the personal residence of Boutros Boutros-Ghali for nighttime meetings about the economic sanctions,” Mr. Farbiarz told the jury at the U.S. District Court in Lower Manhattan.
“It almost sounded like a Tom Clancy novel,” Mr. Park’s attorney, Michael Kim, said, belittling the government’s case against his client, who is charged with acting illegally as an unregistered agent of a foreign government.
According to the prosecution, Mr. Park had strong connections to such U.N. luminaries as Mr. Boutros-Ghali and the Canadian oil tycoon and environmentalist Maurice Strong. “He sold his access,” Mr. Farbiarz said, “for cash by the bagful.”
Mr. Park received “for his work” $2.5 million, as well as promises of much more cash, Mr. Farbiarz said. Mr. Park deposited the cash in a club he owned in Washington, D.C.; at the MGM Grand Casino in Las Vegas, and in a joint venture with Mr. Strong, who at the time was Secretary-General Annan’s top adviser on reforming the United Nations.
What did Saddam get in return for the millions he gave for access to Mr. Boutros-Ghali? By late 1996, the “Iraqis got their multibillion-dollar exception to the U.N. sanctions: the so-called oil-for-food program,” Mr. Farbiarz said.
Mr. Vincent, who became an American citizen in 1971, pleaded guilty last year to illegally acting as Saddam’s agent. Yesterday he testified about his close friendship with Iraq’s ambassador to Washington and the United Nations, Nizar Hamdoon, since their days at the Jesuit High School in Baghdad.
Mr. Hamdoon introduced Mr. Vincent to the then-Iraqi foreign minister, Tariq Aziz, as well as to Saddam himself. He often flew to Baghdad to strategize with Mr. Aziz about ways to ease the sanctions, according to the testimony.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Mr. Vincent said he brought the case for easing sanctions to former CIA director Richard Helms, and to former presidential candidate Robert Dole. His wife, now also Senator Dole, at the time headed the American Red Cross, which Iraq hoped to enlist in a humanitarian program.
Mr.Vincent also met with former secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger, and even briefly saw two aides of a little-known State Department official at the time, current U.N. ambassador John Bolton.
The court heard that the man who opened all these doors for Mr. Vincent was the former deputy director, in 1981, of President Reagan’s transition team, William Timmons. After many meetings in Baghdad or Washington, Mr.Vincent would report the results to Mr. Timmons, who would then advise on how best to proceed.
An employee at the Washington-based firm Timmons and Company told The New York Sun that Mr. Timmons was unavailable for comment yesterday.
However, all his best efforts in Washington, Mr. Vincent testified, hit a wall once Secretary of State James Baker relayed a message to them that changing the sanction regime was “a no-no.” It was at that time that Mr. Timmons introduced Mr. Vincent to Mr. Park, who soon after was able to usher the Iraqi agent through to the 38th floor of the U.N. building, and into Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s office.
The picture of access painted by the prosecution was waved away by Mr. Park’s attorney, Mr. Kim. Like many of the main political characters in the case, as well as some of the top oil executives who were involved in Iraq’s attempts to break down the sanction regime, Mr. Park was, according to Mr. Kim, merely “a middleman, a facilitator.”
Charges against his client did not include “intelligence gathering or spying,” Mr. Kim said. Mr. Park was not accused of “taking money from a foreign government,” or even of “selling his access to the United Nations.” In order to prove that he acted as an unregistered agent, according to Mr. Kim, “The government has to prove that Tongsun Park knew that Samir Vincent was an Iraqi agent.” The case continues.