MANHATTAN (CN) – After a federal jury convicted an Army captain of corruption with military contractors in Iraq, an attorney who has spent years on such cases said that such prosecutions are rare – and much needed. “For several years, we were very worried because we just saw a complete lack of any sort of fraud prosecution against defense contractors,” Susan Burke said.
“Given the dollars being spent on both these wars, it’s imperative for the United States to continue to root out fraud,” Burke added.
Burke, who has specialized in cases involving misconduct by contractors and military personnel, has represented victims of torture, abuse and murder at Abu Ghraib prison and Nisour Square in Iraq.
Last year, her Iraqi clients settled seven civil lawsuits alleging “senseless slaughter” by guards of the company formerly known as Blackwater, now operating under the name Xe.
Burke says she still has three active lawsuits against defense contractors CACI and L-3, on behalf of Iraqis who say they were tortured at detention centers in Iraq.
She also has an active suit against Blackwater founder Erik Prince and his entities, on behalf of a married couple who used to work for him. The husband and wife Burke represents sued under the False Claims Act, which allows whistleblowers to sue contractors on behalf of the federal government for fraud.
Burke spoke to Courthouse News after Army Capt. Bryant Williams was convicted of corruption in December. Williams was on active duty at the time.
Burke said she has been trying for years to get the federal government to pursue cases against defense corruption cases more aggressively – to little avail.
“We’ve been following, essentially, the lack of actions by the Department of Justice with regard to the torture issues,” Burke said, “and we keep an eye on the federal prosecutions against defense contractors on the fraud issue.”
The Uniform Code of Military Justice prevents the military from prosecuting corporate employees, leaving the Department of Justice the exclusive authority to prosecute crimes by military contractors, Burke said.
“Originally, there was an Eastern District of Virginia task force convened to bring those prosecutions,” Burke said. “That task force did nothing. They did not investigate. They did not move forward to an indictment. They just didn’t do anything at all. It was headed up by a man named Chuck Rosenberg, and we had tried to assist because we are in direct contact with the victims. … The Department never contacted us, never responded.
“To the best of my knowledge, we have approximately 300 torture victims. He never interviewed any of the victims, and so there’s really been a complete lack of investigation, a complete lack of prosecution,” Burke said.
It is far more difficult to prosecute defense contractors than military personnel, Burke said, citing Abu Ghraib.
“After the Abu Ghraib scandal was discovered by a small fraction of photographs being leaked to the media, the military began a series of prosecutions against some of the military personnel who were involved in the torture and the abuse.
“One man, Charles Graner, received the longest sentence, and he was sentenced to 10 years in Leavenworth. Now, according to [Graner’s] testimony that he gave to a military investigator after his conviction … one of the CACI employees was a ringleader in the torture and was one of the people directing him to do what he did.
“So you have evidence from one of the perpetrator’s mouths about the role of the corporate employee, and yet to date there hasn’t been an investigation of the corporate employee’s participation in what is not debated to be torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib,” Burke said.
During the recent trial of Capt. Bryant Williams, it was revealed that two contractors involved in the corruption received deals with the government to testify.
Harith Aljabawi, of Joshua Construction, pleaded guilty to charges against him and entered into a cooperation agreement. Mike Naji, of Phoenix Contractors, got a non-prosecution agreement in return for taking the stand.
Together, the men acknowledged receiving more than $930,000 in contracts through corruption; Williams was convicted of accepting tens of thousands of dollars in kickbacks.
Williams could face up to 35 years in prison. It is unclear when Aljabawi will be sentenced and what clemency his cooperation will afford.
Aljabawi and Naji claimed that Williams threatened them at gunpoint to stay in the bribery scheme, but defense attorney David Greenberg said they delivered inconsistent testimony about the incident.
During trial, Capt. Williams said he never accepted “a penny” in kickbacks, or bribed or threatened anybody. He said that the money he kept in locked duffel bags were winnings from card games with military contractors, which he hid because gambling is against Army regulations.
Williams said that contractor villages had disc jockeys, swimming pools, golf driving ranges, rampant gambling and alcohol use. His attorney suggested that some contractor villages also hosted prostitutes.
“I’ve interviewed a substantial number of people that have been there either as soldiers or as contractors, and depending on the location, there appears to be a certain sense of lawlessness existent in these villages,” Burke said. “Drugs, drinking, conduct that would not go unpunished in the United States.”
Despite the “lawlessness,” prosecutions such as this are a rarity, she added.
“At the moment, I do not know what other criminal prosecutors have fraud cases going against defense contractors,” Burke said, though she said this may be because the cases are not publicized.
“Obviously, I’ve followed the media coverage of matters like this, but not all criminal prosecutions are followed by the media,” she said.
Courthouse News was the only news outlet to follow daily proceedings in the Williams trial.
Although there has not been much of a spotlight on such cases, Burke said, “I will say is that there appears to have been a positive turn towards more enforcement against defense contractors.”
She said the guilty verdict showed “whether they’re a military official or not, we don’t give anyone a free pass on corruption. This is taxpayer money, and we can’t have people being bribed.”
Burke hopes the trend will continue. “Based on my work in this area, my own view is that there is a substantial amount of fraud and corruption, and I would encourage the department to continue its efforts to uncover it and prosecute the wrongdoers,” she said.