Ex-arms salesman pleads guilty to US bribe charges

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A former arms salesman for Armor Holdings, who was a key player in an undercover sting operation that led to federal bribery charges against 22 people, pleaded guilty on Thursday to bribery charges in unrelated cases.

Richard Bistrong pleaded guilty to conspiracy to pay bribes, illegally exporting certain goods without authorization and falsifying books and records. He could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The plea was expected in January but was abruptly postponed days after prosecutors unsealed bribery charges against 22 people who were brought together by Bistrong to participate in another possible arms deal but really was an FBI sting.

Those 22 individuals, including a Smith & Wesson Holding Co sales executive and a former U.S. Secret Service agent, were charged with trying to bribe an African defense minister as part of a $15 million arms supply deal.

Prosecutors accused the group of trying to bribe two men who posed as representatives of the African defense ministry -- but were really FBI agents -- to win the contracts to provide arms including guns, body armor and other related equipment.

Bistrong entered his guilty plea on the unrelated charges during a 30-minute hearing in U.S. district court, though no sentencing date was set. The sting operation and his role were not discussed during the hearing.

Bistrong was a vice president for international sales at Armor Holdings, which was later bought by BAE Systems Plc. He was accused of conspiring to bribe officials to win contracts from the United Nations and other foreign entities between 2001 and 2006.

Prosecutors said he used consultants and other agents to make cash and other payments to foreign officials to win contracts for supplying body armor to U.N. peacekeeping forces, pepper spray to Dutch police, and fingerprint ink pads for elections in Nigeria.

Bistrong was also accused of violating export control laws by shipping armored helmets and vests to the United Arab Emirates for delivery to the Kurdish regional government in Iraq without a license, according to court papers.

Reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky; Editing by Steve Orlofsky