US: Bribe Inquiry Looks at Sale of Field Gear to Military

In a widening scandal at the United States Special Operations Command, federal investigators are looking into a bribery scheme as well as accusations of improper influence involving millions of dollars in battlefield equipment used by Navy Seals and Army
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The New York Times

In a widening scandal at the United States Special Operations Command, federal investigators are looking into a bribery scheme as well as accusations of improper influence involving millions of dollars in battlefield equipment used by Navy Seals and Army Green Berets and Rangers.

The investigations, unfolding on several fronts, are examining the hiring of a former Special Operations Command official by a military contractor as well as financial contributions by military contractors to a nonprofit organization that ran social events for the special forces.

A statement issued yesterday by the command, located at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., said that the Pentagon's inspector general was examining the accusations. Among those under investigation is Gen. Bryan D. Brown, known as Doug, who heads the command.

Yesterday's statement comes after a plea agreement involving a civilian procurement official at the command, who pleaded guilty in federal court this month to having accepted bribes. The official, William E. Burke, 50, admitted to accepting payments from an individual who represented military contractors seeking to equip these commandos.

The special forces command is also investigating all of the contracts handled by Mr. Burke since 1999 to see whether special forces troops received inferior equipment as a result of the kickbacks. At least one other indictment is expected. The other person who represented the contractors has not been publicly identified.

Meanwhile, as a result of information received since Mr. Burke's guilty plea, the Pentagon inspector general is expanding its investigation of contracting practices.

"The issue has been referred to us and we are in the process of looking into it," Gary Comerford, a spokesman for the Pentagon inspector general, said yesterday.

The Pentagon is specifically looking into accusations, made by current and former employees who did not identify themselves, that one former military procurement official who oversaw millions of dollars in Boeing Company contracts went to work for Boeing after leaving the command. A Boeing spokesman, Dan Beck, declined to comment on the report until he had studied it further.

Investigators are also looking into an accusation that military contractors were major contributors to a nonprofit organization called Night Stalkers, which provides entertainment and parties for command officials. Among those listed on the Night Stalkers Web site as corporate sponsors are Raytheon, Boeing, L3 Communications, Sikorsky, General Electric and Rolls-Royce.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who previously criticized budget practices at the command, said he "would leave it to others to determine the veracity" of these accusations. In yesterday's statement announcing the inspector general's investigation, the command said the accusations "lack merit" and declined to comment.

In the case of Mr. Burke, a special forces procurement official since 1999, the contracts involved are valued in the millions of dollars and cover items like lightweight communications systems, ammunition, small arms and other equipment carried by Army, Navy and Air Force special forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Mr. Burke, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal investigators, faces up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $250,000. His lawyer, Daniel Hernandez, declined to comment.

Since 2001, financing to the command has risen sharply. It is now around $6 billion a year.

In addition to the Pentagon inspector general, contracting practices at the command are being investigated by the United States attorney's office in Tampa, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Defense Criminal Investigative Service, as well as the Special Operations Command.

"We are reviewing all contracts that may have been involved," said Kenneth S. McGraw, a spokesman for the command. "We do not have the information on the number of contracts that may have been affected."

Still, because these investigations come after a multibillion-dollar procurement scandal that shook the Pentagon last year and because it involves equipment used by elite troops on dangerous assignments, it is attracting attention.

"It's disconcerting," said Keith Ashdown, a military analyst with Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington research group. "These are supposed to be the crème de la crème of forces. If their procurement officers were taking kickbacks, it could be happening anywhere."

Last year, in a high-profile procurement scandal, Darleen A. Druyun, once the Air Force's top weapons buyer, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and was jailed for having favored the Boeing Company in billion-dollar Pentagon contracts in return for employment there for herself and members of her family.

In the kickback report involving Mr. Burke, court papers say Mr. Burke received payments from the unnamed individual in return for preferential treatment in the awarding of contracts to companies represented by the person.

Mr. Burke received $12,000 and "would receive substantial compensation from this other individual 'down the road,' " the papers said.

Last week, The St. Petersburg Times quoted Patrick Doherty, a lawyer in Palm Harbor, Fla., as saying his client, Tom Spellissy, 48, a retired Army colonel, was a target of the kickback investigation. Mr. Spellissy would not comment, referring questions to his lawyer, who did not respond.

Mr. Spellissy denied any wrongdoing to The St. Petersburg Times. He worked at the command from 1999 until he retired last December.

After leaving the military, Mr. Spellissy formed a consulting firm, Strategic Defense International, which represented military contractors. In the newspaper account, Mr. Doherty said Mr. Spellissy's company had done business with Mr. Burke but the dealings had been legal.

Mr. Burke was an outside contractor working for the Sentel Corporation, which said that he was no longer an employee and that Sentel had done nothing illegal.

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