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Wyatt pleads guilty in Iraq oil case

  Court Watch  -   POSTED: 2007/10/02 14:18

Texas oil billionaire Oscar Wyatt, who in the mid-1990s was involved in a land dispute with a group of agencies in Utah, faces up to two years in prison after pleading guilty to paying an illegal kickback to the regime of late Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in exchange for the right to purchase oil.  The surprise plea, coming in the third week of a trial related to the United Nations oil-for-food program, ends a case that threatened to send the oil man to prison for the rest of his life. He faces 18 to 24 months when he's sentenced Nov. 27.

"I didn't want to waste any more time at 83-years-old fooling with this," Wyatt said after the hearing in Manhattan federal court.

Wyatt was accused of paying millions of dollars to Iraq outside of the 1996 U.N. program, created to allow Iraq to use oil revenue to buy food and medicine, easing the impact of sanctions imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait. The Iraqis were permitted to select the companies that would receive oil.

Wyatt, indicted on five counts, pleaded guilty to one, conspiracy to commit wire fraud. He also agreed to forfeit $11 million.

The U.N. oil-for-food program became corrupted in 2000 when Iraqi officials began demanding illegal surcharges in return for contracts to buy Iraqi oil. The program ran from 1996 to 2003.

During the trial, prosecutors demonstrated that Wyatt had such a close relationship with Iraq that he was able to meet with Hussein in December 1990 to argue for the release of Americans being held as potential shields in the event of a U.S.-Iraq war.

The government insisted that Wyatt later took advantage of that relationship to secure the first contract under the oil-for-food program and to continue to receive oil deals after other American companies were denied access.

Wyatt's defense lawyers argued that their client was an American hero who never knowingly paid surcharges to the Iraqi government to win oil deals.

Wyatt made his early fortune in oil and eventually built a system to collect natural gas burned off in Texas oil wells, enabling him to sell the fuel to homeowners as far away as Utah, Michigan and New England.

Wyatt's ties to Utah run deeper than just selling natural gas. In the mid-1990s, he opposed an initiative put together by competing federal, state and private interests that called for conservation groups to purchase ranches in the Book Cliffs area of eastern Utah.

Those groups - in an effort to improve wildlife habitat and protect land from overgrazing - planned to turn the properties over to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the state's Division of Wildlife Resources.

The agencies would then agree to convert federal grazing permits to allow elk rather than cattle on the property.

Wyatt owned some of the ranchland and believed elk were eating forage that should have been feeding his 2,100 head of cattle. He challenged the initiative in court in an effort to outbid the DWR for the grazing permits. He eventually dropped his lawsuit, and the groups put together 500,000 acres for conservation.


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