Halliburton corruption case goes to the jury
By Ray Hanania — (Peoria, Il., Thurs. 10-16-08) – The controversial prosecution of a Chicago area man accused of taking a bribe while managing contracts for Halliburton in Kuwait during the start of the Iraq War was turned over to a Federal Jury Wednesday following three weeks of testimony. Jeff Mazon, of Country Club Hills in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs, is charged with accepting a $1 million bribe in exchange for inflating a $685.000 contract to $5.52 million for a Kuwait contractor involved in providing services to American forces as they prepared to invade Iraq in March 2003. Mazon’s attorneys blamed his supervisors who said they were making him into a scapegoat to cover their own mismanagement.
This is the second time the case has gone to a jury. Last April, a Federal jury in Rock Island deadlocked on the case, which was moved last month to a new trial in the Federal Court House in Peoria, where the judge in the first case, U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade, is based.
Nearly two dozen witnesses were brought in by prosecutors to testify against Mazon. Federal prosecutors, led by Assistant U.S. District Attorney Jeffrey B. Lang who has prosecuted many of the war related cases, asserted in closing arguments that Mazon misled his supervisors about the contract to provide fuel to American soldiers and tried unsuccessfully to cash the $1 million bank draft that he received months later.
Mazon’s attorney, J. Scott Arthur from Orland Park in Chicago’s suburbs, told the jury the government had a “weak case” based on circumstantial evidence that has been “twisted” and “distorted” to make Mazon look guilty.
Arthur, who did not call any witnesses, argued that the prosecution witnesses proved Mazon’s innocence, confirming: Mazon was over-worked and that requests for help were routinely denied by his supervisors at Halliburton; that the Contract in question was in fact one of thousands of contracts that were processed at the Kuwaiti based offices of Halliburton subsidiary KBR; and that the alleged inflated payment amount was in fact the result of an Excel Spreadsheet computation error embedded in the spreadsheet.
Rather than blame Mazon, Arthur argued, the jury should really be considering the mismanagement practices of his supervisors who, upon discovering the error after Mazon left the company, wanted to protect themselves and place all the blame on Mazon. All the contracts Mazon’s managed, including the one to LaNouvelle, had to be signed off by several of his supervisors who never did their jobs, Arthur said.
Mazon left Halliburton after supervisors there refused to provide any relief or hire additional staff to assist in processing the contracts “that flew past his desk” at lightening speed.
Quoting numerous prosecution witnesses, Arthur said Mazon presented the contract to several of his supervisors in the same manner that he presented all of the contracts he oversaw. Not one of his supervisors, many who testified against him later, had bothered to even review the contract details before signing off.
“Mazon’s supervisor just told him show me the number [costs]. There’s a war going on. People are working 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week. They’re overworked with no help,” Arthur said. “His supervisor the ‘Colonel’ [Butch Gatlin] only had one concern, do whatever needed to be done to get the contracts processed and the troops supported. They [Halliburton and Mazon’s supervisors] were responsible for the mistake. But if they can place the blame on Mazon, then it takes the blame off their backs.”
The prosecution’s case was laid out for jurors in closing arguments by Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew J. Cannon who said the document trail proved that Mazon had “schemed” to inflate the contract costs.
Cannon charged Mazon abused the trust given to him by his Halliburton colleagues, saying he was held in high regard and considered one of the most experienced and most trusted contract managers there. He asserted Mazon kept his supervisors in the dark, failed to get approval when the contract amount exceeded the ceiling he was authorized to approve, and then, after approving the inflated contract, left Halliburton/KBR and accepted a $1 million bank draft from the contractor he “schemed” to benefit.
“I bet there was some dancing in the desert that day,” Cannon told the jury. “If you are going to commit fraud, you have to make it look like a mistake. That’s what Jeff Mazon did.”
But Arthur argued that aside from document errors, the prosecution does not have a “smoking gun” nor evidence of a scheme. Arthur said you can just as easily conclude from the documents the miscalculation as an innocent mistake. He also said Mazon never tried to hide the $1 million check that he described as a loan, and instead of running to retire on a beach came back to the states, declared the bank draft with U.S. Customs and tried to deposit it to open a McDonald’s franchise in Chicago.
Like many former Halliburton employees, Arthur noted, Mazon went into business for himself working with people he met while in Kuwait. It wasn’t until six months while working on Greece after leaving Halliburton that he entered into the business arrangement with LaNouevlle.
“Where is the evidence that there was a scheme?” Arthur asked. “In this case, there is no evidence.”
Both sides agreed that the issue involved the conversion of Kuwaiti Dinars to U.S. Dollars, at a rate of 3.3 dollars per dinar. On the bid sheet, the dollar amount was listed as Kuwait Dinars and then converted to a much higher number. Plus, both sides agreed that Mazon had increased the contract to compensate for penalties imposed by the contractor when the original fuel trucks did not meet safety specifications as required by the Kuwaiti government.
Arthur said the penalties caused the costs to increase before being tripled a second time while Cannon said that the issue of penalties came up only later.
Judge McDade instructed the jurors that the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Mazon “schemed” to inflate the contract amount, adding, “The defendant is presumed innocent.”
The jury met for two hours on Wednesday before retiring. They are expected to return to deliberations this morning (Thursday Oct. 16, 2008).
(Ray Hanania is an award winning columnist and Chicago radio talk show host. He can be reached at www.ArabWritersGroup.com and by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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"I write about three topics, the Middle East, politics and life in general. I often take my life experiences and offer them in an entertaining way to readers, and I take on the toughest topics like the Israel-Palestine conflict and don't pull any punches about what I feel is fair. But, my priority is always about writing the good story."
Hanania covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at www.TheArabDailyNews.com, www.TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com. He has also published weekly columns in the Jerusalem Post newspaper, YNetNews.com, Newsday Newspaper in New York, the Orlando Sentinel Newspapers, and the Arlington Heights Daily Herald.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media. In 2009, Hanania received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. He was honored for his writing skills with two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild. In 1990, Hanania was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times editors for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His writings have also been honored by two national Awards from ADC for his writing, and from the National Arab American Journalists Association.
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