WEST PALM BEACH — Harry Sargeant, a onetime Republican political player snared in controversies over a corruption probe and pricey war-time oil shipments, took the witness stand Tuesday in a contract dispute that reads more like a spy novel.
The case is replete with palace intrigue in the desert kingdom of Jordan, $2.7 billion in fuel contracts, a retired CIA agent, a general known as "the pasha" and a federal corruption investigation swirling around Sargeant, who refuses to comment about it.
The civil lawsuit was filed by Jordan King Abdullah II's brother-in-law, Mohammed Al-Saleh, who accused the Delray Beach multimillionaire of cutting him out of the contracts to supply fuel to U.S. troops in Iraq.
Sargeant's defense: Saleh was paid for his work with the International Oil Trading Co. But, Sargeant said, Saleh wasn't entitled to profits from contracts that didn't involve him.
"I don't like losing any contract," Sargeant, a former Marine Corps pilot, said in a gruff baritone. "I like to win as much as I can, like anybody does. I don't care if it's golf, basketball — well I'm not very good at basketball any more."
Sargeant wasn't just competitive in bidding on Pentagon contracts. He was an aggressive fundraiser for his Florida State University frat brother, Gov. Charlie Crist, who met King Abdullah along with Sargeant in 2007 as the money from what he called "the war business" started pouring in.
Crist made Sargeant the finance chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, but he stepped down amid controversy in 2009 after an employee was indicted in Los Angeles federal court on charges that he illegally reimbursed donors to Crist, presidential hopeful John McCain and others.
Sargeant's campaign contributions and business practices caught the eye of Democrats, particularly California Rep. Henry Waxman who accused Sargeant in a written statement of "engaging in the worst form of war profiteering."
This March, the Pentagon's inspector general's office released a partial report that concluded taxpayers "paid IOTC about $160 (million) to $204 million (or 6 to 7 percent) more for fuel than could be supported by price or cost analysis."
Waxman said IOTC was overpaid because it had a virtual monopoly over the delivery routes — particularly those through Jordan.
Sargeant testified Tuesday that the Pentagon initially planned to ship fuel across the Iraq border from Turkey and Kuwait. The only way his company could win the bid to carry fuel through Jordan was with the help of Saleh.
Saleh's attorney, Barry Ostrager, suggested Tuesday that his client was caught up in a scheme hatched by Sargeant and his new employee, former CIA agent Marty Martin, who helped arrange the $9 million payment to a Jordanian general nicknamed "pasha."
Ostrager suggested in court papers it was a bribe, a charge that Sargeant's team of attorneys vociferously deny. Palm Beach Circuit Judge Robin Rosenberg ruled that the lawyers couldn't use the word "bribe" in front of jurors.
Al-Saleh's lawyers are also forbidden from mentioning witness testimony and documents that indicate Sargeant is under federal investigation for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practice Act, which prohibits U.S. officials from using certain payments to secure foreign contracts.
When asked Tuesday after trial if he was under federal investigation, Sargeant looked at his lawyer, Roger Kobert, and slipped into a conference room without saying anything. Kobert said he couldn't comment.
The lawyers are also forbidden from discussing evidence that the "pasha" general who accepted the alleged payment, is under criminal investigation in Jordan. Nor can they raise reports that Abdullah wanted Saleh out of the fuel-transport business.
Though the contracts were highly lucrative, Sargeant testified Tuesday that his company initially lost money. He said delivering the fuel was dangerous and that the military didn't buy all the fuel it had ordered. In a May 2007 e-mail mentioned in court, Sargeant lambasted the "idiots in D.C. who have provided us this business."
With Saleh's help, the contracts became lucrative, exceeding $500 million. The current contract the company holds expires in December. Sargeant said the profits are deserved for those who, like him, serve their country for little financial gain when they're in the military or the CIA.
"A lot of time you serve for the government not based on your pay, but because of you patriotism," he said. "It's part of being a patriot serving your country and not worrying about your wallet."