A member of Jordan’s royal family is accusing an American oilman and former GOP fundraiser of bribing the Jordanian government to facilitate his fuel shipments through the country to U.S. forces in Iraq.
The allegation emerged in a civil lawsuit pitting the billionaire American businessman, Harry Sargeant III, against an ex-business partner, Mohammad al-Saleh, the brother-in-law of Jordan’s King Abdullah II.
Al-Saleh, the plaintiff in the case first reported by NBC News in May 2008, claims that he was cut out of a lucrative one-third share in Sargeant’s firm, the International Oil Trading Co., based in Boca Raton, Fla., and replaced by an ex-CIA official with deep contacts in the Jordanian government.
The crux of the bribery allegation involves a $9 million wire transfer from Sargeant’s firm, directed to a mysterious figure in Jordan’s intelligence agency identified in court documents only as “Pasha.”
Sargeant’s lawyers acknowledge that “Pasha” was “possibly” Gen. Mohammad Dahabi, then head of the General Intelligence Directorate (GID), Jordan’s intelligence agency. A source inside the Jordanian government confirmed that.
Kickback or legitimate payment?
Al-Saleh’s lawyers argue in court documents that the money was a kickback to curry favor with the GID and secure Sargeant’s continued use of Jordanian thoroughfares to ship fuel to U.S. bases in western Iraq.
Sargeant’s lawyers insist the $9 million was payment to a “quasi-government” Jordanian company that was a subcontractor for Sargeant’s firm and deny any wrongdoing by their client.
Sargeant, a retired Marine pilot and former official of the Florida state GOP, was once among the Pentagon’s closest business partners, winning billions of dollars in fuel contracts in the Iraq war. But fallout from the contracts has eroded Sargeant’s reputation.
A congressional probe led by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., concluded in October 2008 that Sargeant had exploited his close ties with the Jordanian monarchy to win an exclusive license — a so-called letter of authorization that permitted his company to ship the fuel through Jordan to Iraq, as the contracts required.
Sargeant used his “effective monopoly” over the supply routes to grossly overcharge the Pentagon, Waxman wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Waxman called it “the worst form of war profiteering.”
Shortly after the probe, Sargeant resigned as the finance chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
Last month, a Pentagon audit requested by Waxman found that Sargeant was overpaid by as much as $204 million for the fuel contracts, which were worth nearly $2.7 billion over six years. The Defense Department accepted Sargeant’s inflated prices because no other competitor could get the letter of authorization from the Jordanian government, the audit said.
Ex-CIA agent hired
Now Al-Saleh’s lawsuit is dredging up new information about Sargeant’s dealings with the Jordanian government.
Among other things, court records indicate that Sargeant hired Marty Martin, a former member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, to help manage his oil firm in 2007. Martin — identified in court documents as a former Middle East CIA station chief — leveraged his contacts in the Arab world to cement Sargeant’s relationship with the Jordanian government, even as the king’s brother-in-law was being forced out of the oil company and defrauded, al-Saleh’s lawyers contend.
The money transfer at the core of the bribery allegation is revealed in a November 2007 email from Martin to a representative of the Jordanian intelligence service. In it, Martin wrote that $4.5 million had been “transferred to the designated account for the Pasha’s attention.”
Three days later, Martin wrote again to confirm that a “second tranche of $4.5 million should also hit your account today.” He added, “Please advise Pasha.”
A high-placed source inside the Jordanian government confirmed that the “Pasha” alluded to in the emails was Dahabi, then head of the GID. The source, who requested anonymity, said the payments were “being made to the GID,” and added, “A simple trace on the wires will easily reveal who the beneficiaries were and the bank account details.”
The GID is the Jordanian counterpart to the CIA, and the two agencies have reportedly cooperated in the secret rendition of terrorist suspects. In a report this year, Human Rights Watch portrayed the GID as a vast shadow force in Jordan, harassing dissidents and “influenc(ing) decisions in most aspects of Jordanian public life.”
Violation of anti-bribery law alleged
Al-Saleh’s lawyers allege in court documents that Martin’s payments to the GID may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
But Sargeant’s lawyers, Mark Tuohey and Roger Kobert, said the wires were destined for Taurus Trading Co., a Jordanian firm that provided ground services for Sargeant as a subcontractor. The lawyers characterized Taurus Trading Co. as a “quasi-government entity” and said the Jordanian government was a paid third party in Sargeant’s defense work. Taurus Trading Co. did not respond to emails requesting comment, nor did the Jordanian Embassy in Washington.
Asked why the director of the GID would be involved in the wire transfers, Kobert responded, “You’d have to ask him.”
Dahabi, who was the GID’s director in 2007, did not answer calls to his cellphone.
Martin did not reply to emails or phone calls seeking comment.
Sargeant’s lawyers accuse al-Saleh’s side of taking the wire transfers out of context. “They try to make something very mundane and boring sound sexy,” said Kobert. “It’s not sexy.”
Al-Saleh’s lawyers have cited another email that they argue shows Martin plotting to cut al-Saleh out of his one-third stake in the oil firm.
On Sept. 11, 2007, Martin told the Jordanian intelligence representative: “Please be aware that we have not yet officially advised Mr. Mohammad Al-Sal(e)h that effective 1 July our commercial relationship with him will be completely terminated to be replaced by direct interaction and cooperation with GID and H(is) M(ajesty)’s offices … Our team or myself are prepared to travel to Jordan for direct discussions on short notice and fully at Pasha’s and H(is) M(ajesty’s) convenience.”
Al-Saleh’s lawyer, Barry Ostrager, said the case is scheduled to go to trial in June.
“I am quite confident the full truth relating to my client’s claims will out,” he said, declining further comment on specifics of the case.
Private fleet, powerful connections
Sargeant, who acquired one of the world’s largest privately owned fleets of asphalt tankers and barges, has cultivated connections with powerful politicians, including former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain of Arizona and ex-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, who was his college fraternity brother at Florida State University.
Sargeant has also been accused of skirting campaign contribution regulations. In August 2008, McCain returned $50,000 that Sargeant had raised for his presidential campaign after the Washington Post alleged that some of the money had been channeled through so-called “straw donors.” According to the Post, a former head of the CIA unit formed to hunt down al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden helped raise the money, but the paper did not identify him by name.
Despite such allegations, Sargeant’s company has continued to do business with the U.S. government. Three days after the Defense Department launched its audit of the oilman in 2009, it again contracted with his firm to supply fuel to U.S. forces in Iraq, a deal that netted International Oil Trading Co. $123 million.
And Warisbusiness.com, a website that tracks Pentagon spending, reported last month that another of Sargeant’s companies, Palm Beach Aviation, won three contracts with the U.S. Special Operations Command in 2009 and 2010, including one to provide “passenger air charter service” for the 4th Psychological Operations Group, the U.S. military’s propaganda unit.
In addition to the lawsuit, Sargeant could face scrutiny from criminal prosecutors.
In a statement about the Jordanian bribery allegations, Waxman urged the Justice Department to “investigate whether any criminal charges are warranted.”
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