Iraqi general helped cheat U.S. government, contractors involved in scheme say

Public Safety

Baghdad International Airport, where contractors schemed to rent out land at an inflated price. (Karim Kadim/AP)
November 28 at 5:43 PM
A prominent Iraqi general was involved in a scheme to cheat the State Department out of millions of dollars, according to former U.S. contractors involved.

Two former DynCorp International workers testified in Alexandria federal court this week that they were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by Fadhil Jamil al-Barwari, commander of the First Brigade of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces, to arrange an overpriced lease of land the general owned near the Baghdad airport starting in 2011.

Payments came through Emil Popescu, a Romanian contractor who had been hired by Barwari, the workers said. The details were revealed in the trial for Popescu, who is charged with conspiracy to violate the Anti-Kickback Act.

The onetime DynCorp workers, Wesley Struble and Jose Rivera, have pleaded guilty to their role in the conspiracy.

The scheme came together, Struble testified Monday, as the United States began drawing down its military presence in Iraq. Contractors were scrambling to find work while companies searched for new land to lease as U.S. bases closed.

It was Barwari who identified DynCorp as a possible tenant when another contractor, EOD Technology, was moving off his property, Struble testified. Struble had been working for EODT, which was paying $124,000 a month for the general’s land under a Defense Department contract. Struble admitted in court earlier this year that he left EODT for DynCorp and, along with co-worker Jose Rivera, helped persuade the company to pay over $665,000 a month for the same property.

“I would help him with whatever I could to make it happen,” Struble testified Monday about Barwari, and “he would take care of me.”

However, Struble defended the expensive DynCorp lease, saying it involved more space and required more security than the EODT contract.

The State Department ultimately paid the bill, which came to $5.3 million in rent from September 2011 through April 2014.

Popescu’s role was to be the “face” of Barwari’s company, Struble said. He had lost his own job at EODT as the contractor’s presence in Iraq shrunk. A friend of Rivera and Struble, Popescu was chosen as “someone reliable” to deal with DynCorp and handle the kickback payments, prosecutor Brian Harrison told jurors in his opening statement Monday. Barwari’s two nephews had wanted to be in charge of the project but they were “very immature, unreliable, irresponsible,” Struble testified.

For six or seven months of work at Barwari’s company, Popescu was paid $400,000, Harrison said in court.

Popescu acknowledged being involved in the conspiracy early on. But he said that when he was actually directed to split $150,000 of the first DynCorp lease payment between himself, Rivera and Struble, he got nervous. He said he told his co-conspirators he would no longer be paying out kickbacks.

“That’s when he had his change of heart,” defense attorney Dontae Bugg said in his closing statement. “He’s not going to be the money man for them anymore.”

Popescu left Iraq in March of 2012, after he finished building a camp on the general’s property. The $400,000 payment was a legitimate salary for that work, Bugg argued, while Popescu’s involvement in the kickback scheme ended much earlier and thus outside the crime’s five-year statute of limitations.

Popescu, Rivera and Struble were indicted in March of 2017.

But Rivera and Struble testified that while only their first payments came directly from Popescu’s hands, he was involved in the conspiracy throughout and never expressed reservations.

“He did not wash his hands” of the scheme, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kimberly Pedersen said in her closing argument. “There are a lot of things the defendant could have done, should have done, but didn’t.”

Bugg suggested there was a broader lesson to be learned from the case: “Perhaps the U.S. government shouldn’t be engaging in business with Iraqi generals.”

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