Iraq Corruption Case Goes to the Jury

MANHATTAN (CN) – Army Capt. Bryant Williams “put greed above his duty” and “profits above patriotism” in bribing military contractors for kickbacks in Iraq, federal prosecutors said in closing arguments Tuesday. Williams’ defense countered that the government’s case relies on testimony from a used-car salesman whom no juror would “even buy a junker from.”

     “Would you buy a car from him? You wouldn’t even buy a junker from him,” attorney David Greenfield said of government witness Harith Aljabawi.
     Aljabawi pleaded guilty to corruption charges in January 2009. His brother Naji testified under a non-prosecution agreement.
     Williams testified that he won tens of thousands of dollars not from corrupt deals with contractors but from gambling that he hid from the Army – and the tax man – because gambling was against Army rules.
     Aljabawi and Naji, referred to by both lawyers as “Mike and Harry,” owned the companies Joshua Construction and Phoenix Contractors, respectively.
     Forty-seven percent of the contracts in Williams’ unit went to these companies while Williams was in charge, prosecutor Steve Lee said during summations.
     Williams had testified that Aljabawi and Naji got the contracts because they were willing to work “off the FOB [Forward Operating Base]’ in the section of Iraq known as the “Triangle of Death.” None of the other contractors were “willing to put themselves in harm’s way,” he said.
     Aljabawi and Naji testified that Williams demanded percentages and flat fees for contracts, which increased over time. Both said that Williams took them aside to a private barn, pulled out an Army weapon and threatened them when they began taking their services to other units.
     One brother claims that Williams said, “You’re from New York. You know what happens when someone plays games with the Mafia?”
     Another said that Williams used the phrase “drug dealers” instead of Mafia.
     Prosecutor Lee said the apparent contradiction showed that the brothers did not compare notes with each other.
     Greenfield countered that it is unlikely that two brothers who were “attached at the hip at everything they do” avoided talking about the case for more than 2 years.
     Lee said the testimony of contractors Aljabawi and his brother Mike Naji were reliable because lying on the witness stand would invalidate their cooperation and non-prosecution agreements.
     Greenfield replied that a jury assesses the truthfulness of their testimony, essentially contracting the witnesses to give consistent, rather than honest, testimony. He added that in his guilty plea, Aljabawi admitting to lying to the government previously.
     “Now you have to believe him because now he’s a believable guy,” Greenfield said.
     Whereas Lee said the witnesses were “responsive” and “not evasive,” Greenfield said “it was like pulling teeth” to get Aljabawi merely to acknowledge what he did for a living.
     Aljabawi said he worked in “auto parts” and “with cars” before testifying that he owned a used-car store, Greenfield said.
     Greenfield added that Aljabawi cheated on his taxes and told him to “believe” him that he did not know where his nephew lived.
     He said that “believe him” describes “exactly what the government wants you to do.” Without their eyewitness testimony, prosecutors had only evidence of money transfers and witnesses who did not observe corrupt acts, the attorney said.
     “Believe a guy who doesn’t know where his nephew is, who cheats on his taxes? Believe him, that’s what the government wants you to do,” Greenfield said.
     Williams acknowledged on the stand that he did not declare gambling winnings on his taxes.
     Williams’ gambling was the defense’s key argument when it presented its case this week.
     Testifying in his own defense, Williams denied taking a “penny” from contractors as kickbacks. He said that the tens of thousands of dollars he stored in duffel bags came from months of winnings at the card game Tonka.
     As a Louisiana resident, Williams said, he played a lot of cards, and his wife disapproved of his habits as “risky.”
     On the same day as summations, Williams testified that he gambled about three or four times a week in 2005 and 2006, the time during which he was alleged to have taken bribes.
     During this time, Williams said, he worked from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
     He said he had the advantage of playing sober against military contractors who often “got sloppy” from drinking.
     After he was redeployed in 2007 and 2008, Williams said, he had a new position with even heavier hours, which stopped him from gambling at all.
     Prosecutor Loyaan Egal grilled Williams about email addresses from his account and signatures in his name, and Williams replied that certain signatures and one of the emails may have been forged.
     “If you look at the two documents side by side, you will see [the signatures] are not the same,” Williams said.
     Egal asked Williams to spell “Phoenix,” the name of one of the contractors and alleged co-conspirators. Williams spelled the word correctly, but the name was misspelled on the bid as PHEONIX.
     Williams later said that as a Louisiana State University graduate, he does not misspell simple words.
     But Aljabawi did, the defense suggested during Williams’ testimony, projecting an email he wrote that began with the greeting “Hi captin.”
     While trying to discredit the contractors’ testimony, Greenfield said that Williams “served his country well” as a soldier, re-enlisted several times, continues to be on active duty and had his character vouched for by four high-ranking officers whom the defense called just before summations.
     Lt. Col. Samuel Chisolm said Williams “seemed like a loyal individual.”
     Col. Alvin Miller, who also served as a pastor, testified that Williams was a “good soldier” who was “very committed” and had an “impeccable” and “stellar” reputation of loyalty.
     Lt. Terrance Pitts, who knew Williams for 12 years, called him a “leader.”
     During cross-examination, all three witnesses acknowledged that they were not in his direct chain of command in Iraq, did not work with him between 2005 and 2006, and were not present during his interactions with contractors.
     The final character witness, retired Col. Todd James Ebel, now a director of the School for Command Preparation at Ft. Leavenworth at Kansas University, called Williams “a very capable individual” who fulfilled the role of “selfless service.”
     Ebel served in the same S4, or supplies, unit as Williams, although he acknowledged that he would have had limited contacted with him as third in his chain of command.
     He testified that he had no time to socialize at all because, during the periods in question, his unit broke into “an al-Qaida sanctuary” that was a “hornet’s nest.”
     “I barely slept every night,” he said.
     Three of the uniformed soldiers continued to sit in the front row during summations. Greenfield gestured to them, as he said that their vouching for his client’s character “means something.”
     Lee said that Army witnesses called by the government were not so impressed.
     According to Lee, Sgt. Ashley Stinson testified that Williams tried to get her to wire money, and she refused.
     Lee urged the jurors to use their “common sense” while crunching some numbers about Williams’ “supposed gambling money.”
     Adding up wire transfers, money sent in the mail, and hand-delivered duffel bags of cash, Lee said that he made $35,500 in gambling winnings over 46 weeks, or $770 per week while playing in a war zone under a rain of mortars.
     “He would have to be the luckiest gambler in the world,” Lee said.
     The jury will now determine his luck. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison.

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