Houston oilman Oscar Wyatt Jr. pleaded guilty Monday to charges that he paid millions of dollars to Iraqi officials to illegally win contracts connected to the United Nations oil-for-food program.
Wyatt told the federal judge in Manhattan that he agreed in December 2001 to advise others to pay a surcharge into an Iraqi account in Jordan in violation of a program rule calling for no direct payments to Iraq.
“I didn’t want to waste any more time at 83 years old fooling with this operation,” Wyatt said outside court. “The quicker I get it over with the better.”
The plea deal calls for Wyatt to be sentenced on Nov. 27 to 18 to 24 months in prison, unless the judge decides otherwise. He also has agreed to forfeit $11 million.
The U.N. oil-for-food program, set up to finance Iraqi imports of necessities, became corrupted in 2000 when Iraqi officials began demanding illegal surcharges in return for contracts to buy Iraqi oil. The program ran from 1996 to 2003.
During the trial, prosecutors demonstrated that Wyatt had such a close relationship with Iraq that he was able to meet personally with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in December 1990 to argue for the release of Americans being held as potential shields in the event of a U.S.-Iraq war.
Prosecutors played a tape for the jury of the conversation in which Hussein promised Wyatt that Americans would be released as Wyatt and former Texas Gov. John Connally spoke sympathetically about Iraq’s plight.
The government insisted that Wyatt later took advantage of that relationship to secure the first contract under the oil-for-food program and to continue to receive oil deals after other American companies were shut off prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Wyatt’s defense lawyers argued that their client was an American hero who never knowingly paid surcharges to the Iraqi government to win oil deals. They also said he tried to play a peaceful role in resolving conflict between the two countries.
In his 1990 talk with Hussein, Wyatt could be heard telling Saddam that he had visited Iraq as many as 40 times in the previous 15 years and that he was “largely responsible” for a lot of the transactions in which Iraqis sold one-third of their oil exports to the United States.