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Clearwater man is sentenced for Pentagon fraud

The retired general manager of the Hercules Inc. defense plant inClearwater was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison Friday for his part in a Pentagon bribery scheme.

James J. Thompson, who left Hercules last year, was also fined $20,000 after pleading guilty to one count of bribing a public official and one count of conspiring to defraud the United States.

Even though the convictions carried a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, Thompson's lawyer expressed mild surprise at the sentence pronounced by U.S. District Judge Claude M. Hilton.

"I thought it was a little harder than we expected," attorney Jon Sale said. The Miami lawyer had suggested community service and a short time in a halfway house.

Thompson heard the sentence without evident emotion, then stepped outside the courtroom to embrace members of his family who had traveled to suburban Washington, D.C., to attend the sentencing hearing. Thompson had no comment.

The proceeding brought to an apparent close the Clearwater chapter of the U.S. Justice Department's "Ill Wind" investigation of corruption in Defense Department procurement programs.

The episode began in 1982, when a Navy engineer named Garland Tomlin Jr. solicited a bribe from the marketing director for the Clearwater plant of New York-based Sperry Corp., now owned by Delaware-based Hercules. Hercules bought the unit in December 1986 after Sperry merged with Burroughs Corp. to form Unisys Corp. In a prepared statement, Paul W. Griscti, senior communications

administrator for the Hercules Defense Electronic Systems Inc. unit, noted that the incidents occurred before Sperry sold the plant.

Griscti said Hercules has a corporate ethics policy that clearly defines standards and that the company holds periodic training to ensure employees understand and comply with the policy.

"The Ill Wind investigation continues nationwide, and we will continue to cooperate fully with the authorities," Griscti said. "It is our hope that this regrettable incident is behind us - never to be repeated in any fashion again."

The plant makes advanced radar products. Tomlin, the Navy engineer, claimed that he was in position to steer a Navy contract for a radar maintenance system to Sperry. The contract was worth $162-million.

Tomlin wanted $400,000.

The Sperry marketing director, Frank Lavelle, took the offer to Thompson, the plant's newly appointed general manager. At the sentencing hearing, his lawyer said that if Thompson had been in his new job longer, he would have had the confidence to reject the solicitation to bribery.

Instead, he passed it along to New York, where a Sperry vice president named Charles F. Gardner approved regular $20,000 payments to the Navy official, disguised as payments to a consultant who acted as go-between.

For all its trouble and expense, however, Sperry failed to win the promised contract. And when arrests followed, everyone involved cooperated with investigators.

Tomlin, after turning over $385,000 to the government, was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Gardner, the Sperry vice president who was also implicated in other bribery schemes on the company's behalf, was sentenced to 46 months. Marketing director Lavelle, who is 69, received two months in a halfway house followed by two years' probation.

At Thompson's sentencing, his attorney called the bribery scheme "an aberration in an otherwise exemplary life." Sale recited a biography that ran from service in the Korean War to a 33-year career at Sperry, plus devoting himself to his wife and four children. Since coming to Pinellas County, Thompson has served on the Chamber of Commerce and United Way.

"What I did was a horrible mistake," Thompson told the judge Friday morning. "It has undone a lot of what I've tried to do with my life."

Reinforcing the plea for community service, the executive, who took early retirement last year at age 58, asked for a sentence with "an opportunity to atone and try to build back some of my reputation."

When Judge Hilton instead pronounced the prison time, Sale asked Hilton to recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Thompson be assigned to the federal prison camp at Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, to be close to his family. Hilton agreed to ask.

- Times staff writer Alan Goldstein contributed to this report.