The Rosett Report

Baghdad Bagman Bagged: The Sentencing of Tongsun Park

In the multi-billion dollar global scam that was the United Nations Oil-for-Food program, there has now been at least a small portion of justice done. On Thursday, a cold rainy day in Manhattan, I joined the throng assembled in Judge Denny Chin’s courtroom to see the sentencing of a South Korean businessman, Tongsun Park. Park got five years in prison and was ordered to forfeit $1.2 million and pay a $15,000 fine for what Judge Chin described as “a very serious crime.”

Park was convicted last summer of conspiring to act as an unregistered agent of Saddam Hussein’s government with the aim of bribing the UN to rig the Oil-for-Food relief program for UN-sanctioned Iraq. But that mouthful does not begin to convey the web of conspiracy and cash that trial witnesses described to the jury, in a tale that included cash in envelopes in Manhattan, cash in shopping bags near Washington, cash picked up in Baghdad, deposited in a Jordanian bank and then delivered in the form of checks to various parties, including one of Kofi Annan’s top advisers and environmental gurus, Maurice Strong — who has denied any wrong-doing. (Here’s a link to my reporter’s notebook blog on Park’s trial).

All told, as summed up by Judge Chin, Saddam’s regime paid Park more than $2.5 million for his efforts in conspiring to bribe a UN official.

Which leaves us with an important mystery. Exactly what — or who — did Saddam and his henchmen think they were getting for their $2.5 million or more in payments to Tongsun Park? No one at the UN has been accused of taking any bribes via Tongsun Park. The theory among such folks as Volcker’s investigators seems to be that despite Park’s efforts in a conspiracy that went on for years, and despite Park’s receipt of millions from Baghdad for his services, somehow no one at the UN ever took the bribes Park was paid to deliver. Digging deeper into this matter is difficult, because Volcker despite his initial promises to release the underlying documents of his investigation has instead turned them over to the UN’s own legal department, which refuses to release them to the public, or the press.

So what to make of this curious scene? — in which Saddam’s government paid Tongsun Park more than $2.5 million to bribe an official (or perhaps several) at the UN; but at the UN itself, no one has been accused of taking any money from Park. By many accounts, while Saddam’s regime was massively corrupt, it did not throw money around without expecting some performance in return. And the period most of interest, 1996-1997, was a time at which Saddam was scrimping for cash — Iraq was under sanctions, but the torrent of Oil-for-Food kickbacks, payoffs and smuggling had not yet seriously begun.

Tongsun Park did not receive one lump sum for efforts. He got a series of payments from Baghdad, spread out over at least two years. That raises the question of why, if Park was somehow failing to actually deliver bribes to the UN, Saddam’s regime would have continued forking over the cash. Witnesses at Park’s trial testified that in 1996, while the UN under Boutros Boutros-Ghali was setting up Oil-for-Food, Park received stacks of Iraqi cash delivered to him in the U.S. But in 1997, which was after Oil-for-Food had begun, but while it was being further shaped during Kofi Annan’s first year as UN Secretary-General, Park on two separate occasions, in July and September of 1997, received two more big payouts from Baghdad.

The first, for about $1 million, was deposited by an Iraqi in July, 1997 into the Jordanian bank account from which Park the following week delivered a check for $988,885 to Maurice Strong (Strong told investigators he did not know the source of the funds, and that Park was handing over funds to invest in a Strong family company). Then there was a second big Baghdad payout, in which Park himself, according to a witness at his trial, walked into the same Jordanian bank in September, 1997 with a bag containing $700,000 in cash and deposited the bundle. Later that same day, Park drew down almost the entire account to issue a number of checks, including several for businesses in which he had an interest, and one for $30,000 to M. Strong. What became of that check has not been explained.

And so we arrive at this curious moment in the Oil-for-Food saga. Tongsun Park, to whom Baghdad paid more than $2.5 million for his role in a conspiracy to convey bribes to the UN, is now doing five years in prison for his crime. We can be grateful to the U.S. system of justice that this much has been done. But one might have supposed that given all Park’s efforts, worth millions to Baghdad in bagman fees alone, there would have been someone at the UN on the receiving end of this particular connection; perhaps someone dining out well tonight on bribe money skimmed from the people of Iraq via a job of high public trust. But no one, not one person, has been named. It’s a funny world.