Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Judge in Halliburton contract corruption trial clashes with defense

(DATELINE Peoria, Il, Sept. 30, 2008) -- The judge in the controversial trial of Jeff Mazon, a former Halliburton procurement officer accused of intentionally inflating a contract payment in exchange for a bribe, acknowledged his rulings have caused "some tensions."

In the second day of hearings, U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade acknowledged his rulings tightened reigns on Mazon’s defense team which is led by J. Scott Arthur a suburban Chicago attorney from Orland Park.

Arthur protested, after the judge directed the jury to leave the court room during a procedural squabble, that the judge’s ruling compromised Mazon’s ability to get a fair trial.

"Your honor. I can’t represent my client because you have given the government (prosecutors) so much leeway," Arthur protested as Judge McDade ruled against Arthur’s attempts to strengthen his clients argument that the War in Iraq had strained the war contract delivery system.

McDade, who is soft spoken and rarely raises his voice, referred to the first trial in which the jury last April deadlocked on the complex charges.

"I gave the defense attorney in the last trial more leeway on issues outside of the scope of cross examination to allow him (Arthur) to address matters to put on his own case for the defense," Arthur said.

But he said he "won’t allow" Arthur to do it again in this second trial which began Monday in McDade’s court room in the Peoria Federal Building.

McDade offered a chilling warning to Arthur, saying, "Whether or not there will be a 3rd trial in this case by you is questionable." Arthur said he thought he understood what the softspoken judge said but "wasn’t sure."

After verbally reprimanding Arthur, McDade cautioned the attorney about his conduct.

The argument erupted when Arthur tried to get a government witness who worked for the U.S. Army that approved contracts to support the War in Iraq to acknowledge that everyone was in a rush to get the contracts serviced.

McDade has already ruled that Arthur cannot argue Mazon is being made a scapegoat by Halliburton KBR, his former employer, that he was "framed," that Halliburton, worked with the government to frame Mazon, or that Halliburton KBR mishandled dozens and maybe more government contracts..

What remains of Mazon’s defense, which may have swayed the deadlocked jury in the first trial held in Rock Island, is that Mazon, like many other contractors serving the Iraq war, were overworked causing many errors.

During the trial, a government witness and Mazon’s supervisor, Col. Robert Gatlin, said that he and Mazon and others worked as many as 20 hours a day, seven days a week.

Prosecutor Jeffrey B. Lang argued that Mazon inflated the contract to provide fuel to soldiers at garrisoned at a military base that was hurriedly built in Kuwait prior to the Iraq war.

Arthur argued in the last trial and will argue again that Mazon and several other Halliburton contractors had merely tripped up over the conversion of U.S. dollars to the Kuwait Dinars. One Kuwaiti Dinar is equal to 3.3 U.S. dollars. The inflated contract price was increased precisely by 3.3 in an Excel spreadsheet in which the formulas were automatically embedded. By clicking the "cells," contractors automatically changed the price.

The bid document presented to the court showed the contract was $1.67 million US Dollars but listed as $1.67 Kuwait Dinars. It was then converted to $5.52 million U.S. Dollars through the monetary conversion error.

Lang also challenged claims that the government and Bush administration were intentionally seeking to downplay the trial.

"This is not a political trial. No one from Washington (DC) called and told me to do anything. I got into this because I wanted to. I read a story about this in the Wall Street Journal and I called and asked to be assigned to this case," Lang said during a break in the trial.

Lang said as many as 60 people have been charged and convicted with contract related corruption, but he insisted that the politically connected Halliburton should not be the focus of the trial.

Critics, though, insist the Bush Administration intentionally pushed the trial to Rock Island for several reasons. Mazon is Ecuadorian American but his skin tone could lead many to mistake him for an Arab American. Since the terrorism of Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Arab Americans have become victims of American public anger from subtle acts of discrimination and bias in court rooms, businesses and government to acts of vandalism and violence.

Rock Island’s mainly rural Bible Belt constituency might have produced an unsympathetic jury for someone who looks "foreign" and who is alleged to have engaged in corruption with contractors in the Arab World.

Lang brushed the charges aside.

The Peoria jury reflects a slightly better cosmopolitan diversity including five men and nine women, all save with one apparent Hispanic juror and another Asian.

The trial is expected to continue through the middle of October.

(Ray Hanania is providing special reports and commentary from and during the trial which is taking place in Peoria, Illinois. He can be reached at