February 17, 2010 / 11:45 PM / 10 years ago

US judge doubts single conspiracy in bribery case

* Prosecutor says plea deals possible

By Dan Margolies and Jeremy Pelofsky

WASHINGTON, Feb 17 (Reuters) - A federal judge cast doubt on the U.S. government’s assertion that 22 people were part of a single conspiracy when they allegedly tried to bribe someone they believed to be an African defense minister.

The 22, including a former Secret Service agent and a Smith & Wesson Holding Co SWHC.O sales executive, were arrested after a two-and-a-half year FBI investigation that was part of a bribery probe.

The defendants were accused in 16 separate indictments of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, conspiracy to violate the FCPA, and conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to the sale of guns, body armor and other equipment.

Prosecutors said they collectively conspired together, but did not charge them together.

“I read all 16 indictments and I didn’t see it,” U.S. District Judge Richard Leon said during a hearing on Wednesday. “I have zero sense that there was an omnibus grand conspiracy.”

While many of those charged worked for different companies, the common theme running through the indictments is that they all believed they were bribing an African defense minister as part of a $15 million business deal.

The unidentified African country was not involved in the sting, according to prosecutors.

Last week, in an unrelated case, BAE (BAES.L) agreed to pay $450 million to settle U.S. and British bribery charges.

At the court hearing, defense lawyers demanded the government also turn over details about a cooperating witness, whom they identified as Richard Bistrong, a sales executive.

The government filed a criminal information against Bistrong alleging various violations of U.S. bribery laws. He was scheduled to plead guilty last month, but the hearing was abruptly canceled.

Prosecutor Matthew Solomon, also said the government was in talks with some of the defendants’ attorneys about plea deals.

“We’re in discussions with a number of counsel right now about possible dispositions,” Solomon said. “We don’t think there are going to be 16 trials.”

During the 90-minute-long hearing, defense lawyers raised various concerns about the case, including possible entrapment as well as their clients’ right to a speedy trial.

They also questioned whether the government would file a superseding indictment to charge the defendants with one collective conspiracy and whether it would seek to exempt the case from the requirement of a speedy trial.

Solomon declined to rule out either possibility. The judge gave prosecutors until March 10 to decide whether to seek such an exemption.

Eric Dubelier, the lawyer for former Secret Service agent Patrick Caldwell, told the judge, “This has ruined his life.”

The sting operation produced voluminous evidence, including some 5,287 taped phone calls, more than 800 hours of video and audio recordings and 231 recordings of meetings between undercover agents and the defendants, according to prosecutors.

The cases are in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Nos. 09-335 through 09-350. (Reporting by Dan Margolies and Jeremy Pelofsky; editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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