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UPDATE 1-US says 22 in bribery case part of one conspiracy

*Defendants include Smith & Wesson sales exec (Adds additional pleas, judge’s remark, case numbers)

WASHINGTON, Feb 3 (Reuters) - Twenty-two people charged with violating U.S. bribery laws after allegedly trying to win arms deals from someone they thought was an African defense minister were part of a single conspiracy, a U.S. prosecutor said on Wednesday.

The 22 individuals, including Smith & Wesson Holding Co SWHC.O sales executive Amaro Goncalves, were caught in an FBI undercover operation. They were charged in 16 separate indictments, but they were not accused collectively in one indictment for conspiring with each other.

“We do believe it is one conspiracy,” U.S. prosecutor Hank Walther told a federal judge during the first of two arraignment hearings where lawyers for 19 of the defendants entered not-guilty pleas for their clients.

The remaining three defendants are in custody and are expected to be arraigned next week.

While many of those charged worked for different companies, the common theme running through the indictments is that the defendants believed they were bribing an African defense minister. The unidentified African country was not involved in the sting.

The prosecutor’s statement clearly surprised U.S. District Judge Richard Leon and many of the defense lawyers, who raised questions about consolidating the cases into one.

“It was news to me that they conspired with the others,” Jeremy Margolis, a lawyer for Goncalves, told the judge during the first hearing.

Leon said the accusation that the group conspired even though they were charged separately was “novel in my experience too.”

At a second arraignment on Wednesday afternoon for 11 defendants, the judge made it clear there were limits to case consolidation.

“I’m not going to try a case, no judge can try a case with 22 defendants,” Leon said.

Two defense attorneys said that they believed their clients barely knew each other beyond perhaps an occasional handshake when their paths happened to cross in the industry.

The defendants are accused of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, conspiracy to violate the FCPAw and conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to the sale of guns, body armor and other law enforcement equipment.

As part of the FBI sting operation, an unidentified former executive for an arms manufacturer arranged a meeting between the arms sales representatives and undercover FBI agents who posed as representatives of an African country’s minister of defense.

The agents told the sales representatives that to win a contract, they had to add a 20 percent “commission” to price quotes, half of which would go to the purported minister and the rest of which would be split between the others.

The investigation was continuing, the prosecutor said. Search warrants were executed when the people were arrested and there could be previous acts of bribery resulting in additional charges, he said.

The prosecutor also said there was a cooperating witness. The New York Times reported the witness is Richard Bistrong, a sales executive for Armor Holdings, now a subsidiary of BAE Systems BAES.L. A plea hearing for Bistrong was scheduled last month, but was canceled without explanation.

The cases are in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Nos. 09-335 through 09-350. (Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky. Editing by Robert MacMillan, Leslie Gevirtz)