The Rosett Report

Oil-for-Food in an Alternate Universe

No matter how over-the-top-crazy-surreal the UN Oil-for-Food debauch appeared at the height of the scandal, no matter how much horrific information has already come pouring out of the congressional inquiries, UN inquiry, press reports and federal probes, somehow there is always more.

So it’s going at the Oil-for-Food trial in lower Manhattan of Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt, accused of paying millions in sanctions-busting kickbacks to the regime of Saddam Hussein. Opening arguments came Monday. Prosecutor Stephen Miller described Wyatt to the jury as a man who didn’t flinch at committing fraud, and said that Wyatt, to his own profit, helped the Iraqi government evade sanctions with schemes covered up with lies: “Wyatt showed that he was especially willing to help them evade sanctions when it came to getting more Iraqi oil for himself.”

Wyatt denies all charges against him. His lawyer, Gerald Shargel, described him to the jury as a man whose “heart is an American heart,” whose “patriotism was unwavering,” and whose dealings with UN-sanctioned Iraq were prompted by his desire “to continue his role as kind of the senior statesman for the oil industry, the dean emeritus, if you will.”

It turns out this dean emeritus of oil, now 83 years old, has been the talk of Texas for decades. That makes for a very different crowd in the courtroom than at last year’s Oil-for-Food trial of South Korean businessman Tongsun Park, which in mid-summer played as a big draw for lots of Korean diplomats in raincoats. This time, we have Wyatt’s wife, Lynn Wyatt, doyenne of the Houston jet set, surrounded by members of a family that includes partyboy son, Steve, who in 1992 was just one degree of separation from the marital breakup of the Duchess of York — yea, with a distant relative who featured as the other half in the famous toe-sucking photo of Fergie. The Wyatt stories seem endless; the family feuds and fortunes, the rags-to-riches, and especially Lynn Wyatt’s wardrobe. There is a small contingent of Texas reporters in the courtroom who have journeyed north to report to the folks back home on the curious customs of New Yorkers and UN relief programs, but for them, the big story is Oscar Wyatt himself. Part of their routine each day is to check out what Lynn Wyatt is wearing to her husband’s trial (so far, she has been favoring black pantsuits).

So there are really two stories running in tandem here, and how the tale of any UN program could compete with the adventures of the Wyatt family, I don’t know. But if there’s one that has a fighting chance, it’s probably Oil-for-Food.

So let’s talk about that for a moment. I am still marveling over a line of argument introduced Tuesday by Wyatt’s lawyer, Shargel, during a cross-examination of a witness who formerly worked for the program, in which Shargel invoked as exemplars of probity under Oil-for-Food the following list of players: Russia, China, France, and the head of the program, Benon Sevan.

Kofi Annan himself could not have delivered a more eccentric interpretation (actually, Kofi Annan delivered almost exactly the same interpretation, until about halfway through the investigations).

As it happens — although no one has so far mentioned this to the jury — Russia, France and China were among the worst abusers of the Oil-for-Food Program, and Benon Sevan was indicted in the Southern District this past January (a fugitive, beyond reach of extradition on Cyprus since early 2005, Sevan has denied any wrong-doing).

So, in some ways, the Oil-for-Food story is yet again entering an alternate universe. More anon…