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Korean arrested on oil-for-food scandal charges

Federal authorities announced Friday that they had arrested a South Korean businessman accused of accepting millions of dollars from Iraq in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal.
/ Source: NBC News and news services

A South Korean businessman accused of accepting millions of dollars from Iraq in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal was arrested Friday by the FBI in Houston, federal authorities announced.

The arrest of Tongsun Park by FBI agents came as new criminal charges against him were unsealed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, according to a release from U.S. Attorney Michael J. Garcia.

His first court appearance was scheduled for Monday in federal court in Houston. A lawyer for Park did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.

The charges related to a scheme in which Park allegedly conspired to assist the government of Iraq during the creation of the U.N.’s oil-for-food program.

Park, a South Korean citizen, had been charged with accepting millions of dollars from the Iraqi government while he operated in the United States as an unregistered agent for the Iraqi government’s effort to create the oil-for-food program.

History of scandal
In the 1970s, Park was at the center of what became known as the “Koreagate” scandals in which he was accused of trying to buy influence in Congress.

Park became known as the "Asian Gatsby" in the 1970's because of his high living and lavish Georgetown parties, which U.S. congressmen sometimes left with cash-filled envelopes. The money came from the South Korean intelligence service funneled through Park and another South Korean businessman. Seoul was interested in gaining influence in the United States.

Although the payments to congressmen caused a scandal, Park was never convicted of wrongdoing in a U.S. court. He fled to South Korea when news of the scandal broke, and charges of bribery and conspiracy were dropped after he agreed to return to the United States and testify before Congress. His biggest problems came with the Internal Revenue Service, which said he owed millions of dollars in back taxes for not reporting his commissions.

The new charges accused Park of agreeing in October 1992 to work on behalf of the government of Iraq with another person who is now a cooperating witness for the U.S. government.

Prosecutors said the cooperating witness, who was not identified in court papers, was to serve as the intermediary to the government of Iraq and others while Park was to serve as the intermediary to U.N. officials as they promoted the oil-for-food program.

Garcia said Park arranged meetings in 1993 between himself, a U.N. official and the cooperating witness, including at the U.N. official’s Manhattan apartment. Park and the cooperator also allegedly arranged a 1993 meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, between the U.N. official, identified as U.N. Official No. 1, and two Iraqi representatives.

Government: Program corrupted ‘from its inception’
Park allegedly received at least $2 million from the government of Iraq as compensation for his efforts with the cooperator on behalf of Iraq, Garcia said.

A large portion of the payments were cash deliveries in diplomatic pouches to representatives of the government of Iraq in Manhattan for Park’s ultimate benefit, the prosecutor said.

Park was charged with conspiring to commit wire fraud, to act as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and with laundering the criminal proceeds derived from the crimes.

“Saddam Hussein’s government paid off Tongsun Park to corrupt the oil-for-food program from its inception,” Garcia said.  “Park’s arrest is an important step in the federal government’s efforts to bring to justice those who broke U.S. law in undermining the humanitarian purpose of that program.”

Mark J. Mershon, assistant director in charge of the FBI’s New York office, said Park was “instrumental in the corruption of the oil-for-food program, which ultimately proved to be a cash cow masquerading as a humanitarian aid program.”

He called the crimes “not only illegal, but unconscionable.”

In the current case, Park was accused of telling the cooperating government witness in 1995 that he needed $10 million from Iraq to “take care” of his expenses and his people, which the witness believed meant U.N. Official No. 1.

The FBI said in a court document that in 1996, the government witness met at a Manhattan restaurant with Park, an Iraqi official, and a high-ranking U.N. official, identified in the complaint only as U.N. Official No. 2, who left the meeting early.

Guarantees and vouchers
After U.N. Official No. 2 left, court papers said, Park claimed that he had used a $5 million guarantee from the government of Iraq to fund business dealings with U.N. Official No. 2.

Park told the government cooperator in 1997 or 1998 that he had invested about $1 million he had gotten from Iraq in a Canadian company established by the son of U.N. Official No. 2, though the company failed and the money was lost, prosecutors said.

The agent also wrote that the cooperating witness wrote a letter to Iraqi government officials in July 1997 to say that he and Park were splitting funds the Iraqi government was forwarding but that both groups were supposed to “take care” of U.N. Official No. 1.

The oil-for-food program ran from 1996 to 2003. It was created to help Iraqis cope with U.N. sanctions imposed after Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. It let the Iraqi government sell limited — and eventually unlimited — amounts of oil primarily to buy humanitarian goods.

But Saddam chose the buyers of Iraqi oil and the sellers of humanitarian goods. In a bid to end the sanctions, Saddam allegedly gave former government officials, activists, journalists and U.N. officials vouchers for oil to be resold at a profit.