NEW YORK — A South Korean businessman was convicted Thursday of conspiracy for acting on behalf of Iraq to influence the United Nations' oil-for-food program without notifying the U.S. government.
The verdict against Tongsun Park was a milestone for federal prosecutors in their attempt to bring to justice some of those responsible for turning a humanitarian effort into a corrupt venture for bureaucrats, oil tycoons and Saddam Hussein.
After less than a day of deliberations, jurors rejected Park's arguments that he was a mere middleman acting largely on behalf of the U.N. to bring relief to Iraqis suffering under Saddam.
The guilty verdict on a charge of acting as an unregistered agent for Iraq left Park "very disappointed," said his lawyer, Michael Kim.
Park, 71, could face more than a dozen years in prison when he is sentenced Oct. 26. Kim said Park hoped that U.S. District Judge Denny Chin would ultimately toss out the verdict, finding the evidence insufficient to support a conviction.
Judge acknowledges questions
Earlier in the week, the judge rejected Kim's request to throw out the charges but conceded "there may be some fair issues" to raise, since few links were shown between Iraq and Park after 1997 in a conspiracy that purportedly stretched from 1992 to 2002.
Prosecutor Stephen Miller maintained to the jury that Park was part of a decade-long conspiracy to lift sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait and brought about the first Gulf War.
The prosecutor told jurors that members of the conspiracy shared bags of cash secretly taken out of Iraq as they pushed efforts they hoped would reap them millions of dollars and lucrative oil contracts.
He said Park used his relationship with former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to join an effort by Samir A. Vincent, an Iraqi-American, to curry favor with Iraq and share as much as $45 million in windfall gains if the sanctions were lifted.
An independent panel concluded last year that Iraq had a scheme to bribe Boutros-Ghali but found no evidence the secretary-general was aware of the plot or received any money.
Vincent, who testified against Park, has pleaded guilty to federal charges and is cooperating with the government. Several others accused in the conspiracy, including Texas oilman Oscar S. Wyatt Jr., have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.
Tales of corruption in program
The oil-for-food program from 1996 to 2003 permitted the Iraqi government to sell oil primarily to buy food and medicine for suffering Iraqis. It was meant to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions, but authorities said the program was corrupted because Saddam was allowed to choose the buyers of Iraqi oil and the sellers of humanitarian goods.
Park's arrest in January 2005 thrust him into a new controversy a quarter-century after he first gained notoriety in the 1970s in the influence-peddling scandal known as Koreagate.
In that scandal, Park was accused of helping intelligence services in his native South Korea funnel bribes and favors to U.S. politicians. He was granted immunity in exchange for his cooperation with prosecutors, and testified that he doled out $850,000 in bribes.
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