Oil and glory, millions of dollars stuffed in suitcases, a fugitive investor protected by Chechen mobsters, former Senator and Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, and a Central Asian president who was who was willing to give away a purported half of his country’s oil wealth for $350 million in cash — what more could you want out of international bribery scheme?
After a month-long trial held in the federal courthouse in downtown Manhattan, a jury found multimillionaire handbag manufacturer Frederic Bourke guilty of breaking laws that prohibit companies from bribing officials of foreign governments.
Along with Viktor Kozeny, an investor buddy who was his neighbor at a ski residence in Aspen, Bourke schemed to pay millions to the government of Azerbaijan in order to gain control of the state-owned oil company there.
Former Azeri president Heidar Aliyev had agreed to privatize the state oil company, SOCAR, in exchange for millions of dollars in payments from Kozeny, a Czech national who was known in media reports as “The Pirate of Prague” after accusations that he had enticed Czech investors into an unrelated scam. (For the past few years, he’s been camping out in the Bahamas to avoid extradition to the U.S.).
For the Azerbaijan venture, Kozeny raised hundreds of millions in capital from individual investors like Bourke (who lost $180 million of his own cash) and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, from hedge funds such as Omega Capital, and from the private equity unit of the now troubled A.I.G. (an A.I.G. employee was originally indicted by the government in 2005, but charges against him were dropped).
Bourke never gave any bribe money directly to the Azeris. He was prosecuted only for conspiring to do so — the first time the feds have brought a case of this kind. Bourke was found guilty, essentially, because he knew about the bribes but, as the legislative history frequently has it, “stuck his head in the sand.”
At the trial, one of Kozeny’s former employees testified that she first heard about the scheme when she met Kozeny at a Moscow bar. Kozeny was sitting with a high-level official of the Egyptian government. When she asked Kozeny why the president of Azerbaijan would be willing to sell off his country’s oil fields, Kozeny bragged openly that he was bribing the president. According to Bloomberg’s David Glovin, the Egyptian official raised his eyebrows, and took another puff of his cigar.
Current Obama envoy to the Middle East and former U.S. Senator George Mitchell also testified at Bourke’s trial. The two had become friends years back when the 75-year-old Mitchell was a senator, and Bourke and a member of the Rockefeller family were trying to raise money for a state park in Maine. Mitchell, who lost $200,000 in the scheme but was not accused of wrongdoing, said he knew the venture was “risky.” But, he added, the potential for high return “justified” the risk. He also said that, despite not being told about the bribes, he still considers Bourke a close friend.
The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the U.S.’s signature anti-bribery law, was virtually ignored by the government for two decades. In recent years, though, the Department of Justice has been prosecuting bribery at an unprecedented rate. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the government has suddenly figured out of how track international money flows and bribes — as in many other cases of this type, Bourke turned himself in to the feds.
Bourke faces thirty years in prison, and should be sentenced soon. But District Judge Shira Scheindlin, who is more well-known for presiding over trials involving the Gotti family, has said she plans to give Bourke less than ten years (no one ever gets even close to the maximum in bribery cases). Right now, the wildly wealthy Bourke is free on $10 million bail. Image via wikipedia.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 14, 2009