New York Times
December 2, 2005
A United States Army officer was charged yesterday with smuggling hundreds of thousands of dollars in stolen cash from Iraq and using some of it to buy machine guns, grenade launchers and other illegal arms that were later found in a garage in North Carolina. He is the third person to be arrested in a widening investigation by a special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction.
The officer, Lt. Col. Michael Brian Wheeler, 47, of Amherst Junction, Wis., was a reservist called to active duty in Iraq, where he helped supervise millions of dollars in reconstruction projects from September 2003 until July 2004, according to a United States Army official and the affidavit describing the charges, unsealed in the Federal District Court of the District of Columbia. The money that was said to have been stolen and smuggled was intended for those reconstruction projects, including a library, a police academy and a center to promote democracy.
The affidavit hinted that others were likely to be charged in what officials say was an extensive bribery, kickback and smuggling scheme based in an office of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Hilla, south of Baghdad. The authority was the American administrative apparatus that ran Iraq after the 2003 invasion.
Two weeks ago, Robert J. Stein Jr., a civilian occupation official, was charged with receiving as much as $200,000 a month in bribes from an American contractor, Philip H. Bloom, to steer construction contracts to companies controlled by Mr. Bloom, who was also charged with crimes.
The affidavit says Colonel Wheeler used his military passes to avoid customs searches as some of the cash was transported out of Iraq and back to the United States, receiving at least $100,000 himself.
Once he returned to the United States, Colonel Wheeler also bought a cache of illegal weapons, including more than 30 machine guns, 4 grenade launchers, high-caliber pistols and silencers, the affidavit said. Colonel Wheeler allegedly had the weapons shipped first to Fort Bragg, N.C., before taking them to a hotel room, where Mr. Stein picked them up and took them to his garage near Fayetteville, N.C.
Investigators found the weapons in the garage, according to the charges. Along with two .45-caliber pistols and two submachine guns from the cache, Colonel Wheeler left North Carolina with his $100,000 cut. The charges add that soon after, Colonel Wheeler "paid a fire alarm company in Fort Atkinson, Wis., $58,000 in cash for a variety of high-end tools."
An attempt to reach him for comment last night at his home was unsuccessful. The Boston Globe reported that his lawyer, Bruce Rosen, said by telephone that Colonel Wheeler was expected to plead not guilty.
Colonel Wheeler originally went to Iraq with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Ashwaubenon, Wis., near Green Bay. Jennifer Slusarek, an administrator with the 432nd, described him as a "team chief - he was in charge of three or four people." But like so many other civilians and military personnel, his responsibilities expanded once he landed in Iraq. Working out of Hilla, Colonel Wheeler was responsible for outfitting four provincial fire departments with fire protection and rescue equipment, creating 19 democracy centers throughout the region, and working with farmers on irrigation systems, the Army official said.
Most of the military officers working in Iraq appeared highly competent and honest, said Ronald Dwight, who worked as a legal adviser in the Iraqi Transportation Ministry in early 2004. "They were very, very highly qualified," Mr. Dwight said. "So it's really disturbing to hear that a person like this betrayed the trust that he was given."
A Coalition Provisional Authority news release dated Feb. 24, 2004, cited Colonel Wheeler's work in distributing to Iraqi schoolchildren in Hilla 11 boxes of school supplies collected from an elementary school in Wisconsin. The donation came about after Colonel Wheeler spoke about needs in Hilla at the Wisconsin school, where his son was a student, the release said.
Photographs show a man identified as Colonel Wheeler, wearing a baseball cap, dark jacket and a thigh holster carrying a pistol, handing out the supplies. "After receiving the school supplies," the news release said, "the Iraqi students smiled and gave the thumbs-up."
A civilian contractor who worked with the provisional authority in Hilla and knew both Mr. Stein and Colonel Wheeler said it was hard to imagine their working together. In contrast to Mr. Stein's dour personality - he dressed all in black, even in the heat of Iraq - Colonel Wheeler was personable and outgoing.
But if they had worked together, the contractor said, it would not be surprising for them to have bought large quantities of weapons with some of the money. Mr. Stein appeared obsessed with weaponry and his Hilla apartment was packed with everything from grenade launchers to AK-47's, the contractor said.
The unsealed charges make it clear that prosecutors believe others were involved in the scandal. The charges refer to a "Co-conspirator 3" and his spouse, several other unnamed officials, and an Iraqi said to be cooperating with prosecutors and referred to as Witness A.
"This investigation is ongoing and continuing," said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman.