September 10, 2007 / 7:32 PM / 12 years ago

Texas oilman accused of paying Iraq kickbacks

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Prosecutors promised on Monday to prove that Texas oilman Oscar Wyatt paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s government, earning him a privileged position in Iraq.

Texas oil tycoon Oscar Wyatt, former chairman and founder of Coastal Corp, departs from Federal Court in New York after a pre-trial hearing August 30, 2007. Prosecutors promised on Monday to prove that Wyatt paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's government, earning him a privileged position in Iraq. REUTERS/Chip East

Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Miller told jurors at opening arguments of Wyatt’s trial that prosecutors would present photos, audio tapes, bank records, U.N. records and Iraqi government records proving Wyatt paid kickbacks to win Iraqi oil contracts .

“Oscar Wyatt’s years of assistance to the Hussein regime earned him a privileged status in Iraq,” Miller said.

Wyatt, an 83-year-old self-made oil tycoon, faces five counts in Manhattan federal court including engaging in prohibited financial transactions with Iraq, deals alleged to have violated the U.N. oil-for-food program designed to provide humanitarian assistance to Iraq while it was under international sanctions.

The oilman, known for his unfettered opinions and flamboyant style, faces a maximum of 74 years in prison if convicted of all charges. After getting his start selling oil drill bits out of the trunk of his car, he founded the Coastal Corp. that was sold to El Paso Corporation for $17 billion in stock in 2000 and 2001.

Defense lawyer Gerald Shargel argued the federal case against Wyatt was “entwined” with his opposition to both U.S.-led wars against Iraq.

Wyatt flew to Iraq 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.

Shargel told the jury that tapes of Saddam speaking would be played during the trial. Saddam was hanged to death in December following his trial in Iraq for crimes against humanity.

Shargel will set out to prove Wyatt was a patriotic American whose advice was sought by nearly every U.S. president from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton, but not the Bushes.

Wyatt, a Democrat, was a “friend and confidant” of Republican presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, but “he was no friend or admirer of the other two presidents,” George H.W. Bush and his son George W. Bush, Shargel said.

“Mr. Wyatt pleaded with the advisers of George H.W. Bush not to go to war and to resolve this peacefully,” Shargel said. “There were (peace) talks and negotiations under way that Oscar Wyatt was involved in.”

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