Sat, Feb 04, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Former US official in Iraq admits to corruption, bribery

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , WASHINGTON

A former US government official in Iraq who is at the center of a bribery and corruption investigation pleaded guilty to five counts in federal court on Thursday, but not before asserting that a US businessman who has also been arrested had set the scandal in motion.

The former official, Robert Stein, pleaded guilty in quick succession to counts of conspiracy, bribery, money laundering, unlawful possession of machine guns and being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Stein admitted stealing at least US$2 million in cash and taking enormous bribes from the businessman, Philip Bloom, in 2003 and 2004 in exchange for accepting rigged bids on construction contracts that Bloom was guaranteed to win. Reference was made to Bloom in the courtroom only as co-conspirator number six, but his identity was clear from the context.

Two senior Army officers who were also government officials in Iraq and are accused as conspirators have been arrested, and more arrests are expected. When the judge asked Stein who had been in charge of the apparent theft and bribery ring within the American-led occupation, he replied, "I'd have to say myself, yes, ma'am."

But asked how the scheme had begun, Stein said, referring to Bloom, "He approached us." As to how the other conspirators had become involved, Stein said, "They just came into play, your honor."

Stein, who was arrested on Nov. 14, is the first to enter a plea in the case, and his words are certain to resonate as other defendants work their way through the courts.

Wearing white sneakers, an orange jumpsuit and wire-rimmed glasses on Thursday, he seemed at times to be disconnected from his surroundings, appearing to study the carpet or the big semicircular overhead lights as Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly at the US District Court for the District of Columbia read the extensive and sometimes lurid charges against him.

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