NEW YORK (Reuters) - Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt was sentenced to one year and one day in prison on Tuesday for conspiracy in the U.N. oil-for-food scandal, becoming the most prominent figure jailed over corruption in the program to buy oil from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
The outspoken self-made oil tycoon, 83, was sentenced in Manhattan federal court after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud in October, four weeks into his criminal trial and just before prosecutors were to rest their case.
Under his plea agreement, prosecutors dropped four other counts against him, cutting short a trial in which they made a case that he paid secret kickbacks to Saddam’s government to win oil contracts from Iraq.
Wyatt broke down in tears as he pleaded for leniency before U.S. District Judge Denny Chin, who could have sentenced Wyatt to up to two years under federal guidelines. He originally faced up to 74 years in prison.
“My opinions, in many ways, probably caused me to skirt too close to the law,” Wyatt told the judge. “For that I was wrong and for that I am truly sorry.”
The judge said he had “never seen such an outpouring of letters” from supporters that detailed acts of patriotism and philanthropy but said he did not believe Wyatt had been unfairly made an example of over the oil-for-food scandal.
“The big oil companies may have gotten off lightly, but I don’t believe Mr. Wyatt was prosecuted because of politics,” he said, adding Wyatt clearly broke the law.
U.S. criminal investigations into the corrupted U.N. program has so far produced the convictions of seven individuals and two companies, including Chevron Corp. which agreed to pay $30 million to resolve criminal and civil liabilities.
The U.N. program was established to help Iraq sell oil to buy humanitarian supplies while it was otherwise under U.N. sanctions due to its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
But a U.N.-commissioned inquiry headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker found the program was corrupted by 2,200 companies in 66 countries that paid $1.8 billion in kickbacks to Iraqi officials to win supply deals.
At trial, prosecutors said Wyatt was at the forefront of the scheme and presented bank transactions, U.N. records and Iraqi government documents to back their claim that Wyatt paid kickbacks to secure Iraqi oil contracts.
Wyatt admitted in his plea deal he agreed to pay a $200,000 surcharge into an Iraqi account in Jordan. He was ordered to forfeit $11 million.
The case against Wyatt represented a fall from grace for a man who rose from crop-duster to World War Two pilot to freelance hostage negotiator, becoming a well-known personality for his free-wheeling ways.
Friends say Wyatt considers himself a patriot and resents the insinuation that he was too friendly with Saddam during both Gulf wars.
Wyatt visited Iraq a number of times and met with Saddam. He famously flew there with former Texas Gov. John Connally in December 1990 in a bid to free U.S. citizens held in Baghdad just before the U.S. operation to dislodge Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait earlier that year.
They brought back some two dozen oil workers to Texas, where Wyatt had flown the families of those who got out.
He was ordered to report to prison in Texas on Jan 2.
Editing by David Wiessler