Oil-for-Food Trial Hears Testimony About Smuggled Cash
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UNITED NATIONS – A Korean businessman, Tongsun Park, hinted that he needed $10 million from Saddam Hussein so he could “take care” of Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, a court heard yesterday. Mr. Boutros-Ghali told Mr. Park he wanted to “neutralize” a top U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq and that he was relying on his “Iraqi friends” to aid his mid-1990s bid for reelection, according to testimony.
The new details emerged yesterday at the U.S. District Court in Lower Manhattan, where Mr. Park, 71, is standing trial for acting as an unregistered agent for a foreign government. The star witness, for the third day, was the Iraqi-American businessman Samir Vincent, who pleaded guilty last year to similar charges.
The testimony included tales of large sums of cash that Mr. Vincent smuggled to New York from Baghdad. The stories were so riveting that even John Gotti Jr.’s interest was piqued when he overheard observers rehashing the testimony in the court cafeteria, where the alleged Mafia heir was awaiting trial.
Mr. Vincent said under oath that he believed a 1995 defection by a son-in-law of Saddam, Hussein Kemal, revived U.N. efforts to find Iraq’s illicit weapons and changed attitudes in Baghdad about accepting an oil-for-food plan. He went to see his U.N. contact, Mr. Park, who previously had arranged meetings with Mr. Boutros-Ghali and other officials.
During their meeting, Mr. Park “asked for $10 million to take care of expenses and to take care of some people,” Mr. Vincent told the court. He assumed “some people” meant Mr. Boutros-Ghali, he said. He later relayed the conversation with Mr. Park to his main contact in Baghdad, Nizar Hamdoon, a friend of his from high school and Iraq’s then-ambassador to the United Nations.
Mr. Vincent told the jury that Hamdoon, who died in 2003, said, “I guess we have to take care of B.B.” He said the initials were understood to be a reference to Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
A year later, as the secretary-general was vying unsuccessfully for a second five-year term at Turtle Bay, Mr. Park relayed a conversation with Mr. Boutros-Ghali, Mr. Vincent said. According to notes kept by Mr. Vincent and shown in court, the secretary-general said, “I want to rely on my Iraqi friends to assist in my campaign for a second term.”
Mr. Boutros-Ghali wanted to impress Saddam’s top aide, Tariq Aziz, and the Turtle Bay leader told Mr. Park he was a friend of the regime, Mr. Vincent said.
According to Mr. Vincent’s notes, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said he always suspected the chief U.N. weapons inspector, Rolf Ekeus, “had links to the United States.” Mr. Boutros-Ghali added, how ever, that he had not yet been able to “neutralize” the Swedish inspector.
Mr. Vincent testified Wednesday that in an earlier stage of his and Mr. Park’s dealings with the secretary-general, Mr. Boutros-Ghali said Iraq must not be overly concerned about U.N. weapons inspectors, suggesting that the regime should “put 600 mukhabarat” – or secret servicemen – in place to monitor them.
Relaying Mr. Park’s demand for $10 million, Mr. Vincent told his main contact with Saddam’s regime, Hamdoon, that he had never heard of “Iraqis paying anything.” But Hamdoon saw an opportunity, he testified.
“This is great, we can make some money,” Hamdoon told him, Mr. Vincent said. Instead of giving Mr. Park $10 million, Hamdoon suggested paying the Korean $5 million and procuring another $10 million for “us,” Mr. Vincent testified. Mr. Aziz later approved the idea, he said.
Mr. Vincent then flew to Iraq, where the oil minister, Amir Rashid, signed separate contracts in February 1996 for Mr. Vincent and Mr. Park, which were reproduced in court yesterday. Mr. Rashid capped the Baghdad session by bringing into the room $450,000 in $10,000 bundles of $100 bills, wrapped in paper carrying the logo of the Bank of Iraq.
Mr. Vincent stuffed the cash into his “bulging” brief case, he said, and asked for a government note to help him cross the border to Jordan. In Amman, he placed a call to Hamdoon in New York and then flew to Germany, he said. When he arrived, he told his German friend Thomas Hansen he was concerned about American laws requiring that large sums of cash be declared. Accepting $30,000, Mr. Hansen agreed to fly along, hiding the money on his person.
Mr. Vincent’s fears proved to be justified. Upon arrival in New York, he was pulled aside and searched thoroughly, he said. The cash, however, was hidden in Mr. Hansen’s socks, underwear, and overcoat, Mr. Vincent said, and his friend was not searched. The two met outside the airport, and he only got the cash back once they had made it to Mr. Vincent’s room in Manhattan’s Mark Hotel.
Mr. Vincent said Hamdoon later split the money: $100,000 to Mr. Park, $10,000 to Mr. Vincent, and the rest to Hamdoon. Cash payments of $1 million and $1.55 million later were delivered to the Iraqi mission to the United Nations in sealed diplomatic pouches, Mr. Vincent said. The payments stopped after a while, but were renewed later, he testified.