Saturday, June 09, 2012

Iraq veteran allegedly conspired with others to defraud government of $15M through rigged contracts.

By Brooke Adams 
The Salt Lake Tribune 

 The St. George bank teller had a simple question for Christopher Harris: Why did he consistently withdraw $9,000 at a time, over and over and over?

Harris had an equally simple answer. He told the clerk he didn’t want to go over the $10,000 mark, which would attract government attention — scrutiny he apparently wanted to avoid for good reason.

Harris, a longtime Army reservist who served in Iraq with a Special Forces unit before becoming an independent contractor, allegedly conspired with others to defraud the government of at least $15 million through rigged contracts. Those contracts eventually totaled nearly $53 million for work during the transfer of security operations in Afghanistan, according to documents filed as part of a civil forfeiture complaint initiated by the government in Utah’s federal court.

No criminal charges have been filed against Harris or other alleged co-conspirators in the scheme, although the U.S. Attorney’s Office says its investigation is ongoing. But in the forfeiture action, filed last fall under seal, the government laid claim to money and assets Harris and others held in 13 different bank accounts; retirement and college saving funds; 20 different properties, including homes in Utah, Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire; vehicles and airplanes; silver bars and gold coins; and a half dozen firearms.

"The claim in this case was not against Mr. Harris [or other individuals], but against the proceeds and the assets the complaint alleges were purchased from the proceeds of the alleged conduct," said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah.

The government alleges Harris used ill-gotten funds to buy and renovate homes in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and in St. George, Utah; he also purchased a lot in St. George, prosecutors say. He bought a Ford Taurus, a 2010 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a Dodge Ram truck, and Cessna — he later sold for $582,625 — and seaplanes.   Harris also loaded up on silver bars, spending about $30,000 on 37 silver bars in varying weights.

Harris, who lived in Utah between April 2008 and March 2010, and his ex-wife are fighting to keep two homes and a lot in St. George. For unknown reasons, Harris opted not to claim an interest in the rest of the items linked to him in the complaint. An attorney representing Harris and his ex-wife declined to comment, saying some pleadings in the case remain sealed.

U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball last month issued a default judgment against Harris, who was in Thailand as of March, court documents show. The judgment entitles the government to everything but the disputed St. George property.

On June 21, Kimball will consider an emergency petition filed by American International Security Corp. (AISC), the Boston-based company Harris worked for in Afghanistan, which is trying to reclaim the $5.3 million in its frozen bank account.

The contracts » The Defense Criminal Investigative Service and Homeland Security Investigations began looking at Harris after being tipped off that he had withdrawn $238,400 from two different bank accounts between April 2009 and October 2010, all in $9,000 increments. That investigation showed Harris made about $24 million in transactions and account transfers over an approximately three-year period.

Eventually, the investigation uncovered an alleged scheme that began in 2007 with a bid on a six-month contract to manage equipment for Afghan National Army Special Forces commando teams and train them on how to do their maintenance work themselves. Key players in the alleged scheme: Harris and his long-time military buddy David Young. The two became acquainted in the 1980s while serving in the U.S. Army and also served in a Special Forces Unit in Iraq between November 2002 and June 2003.

According to prosecutors, Young was a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Army and from 2007 to 2009 oversaw coordination of Army divisions participating in the security transfer in Afghanistan.


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