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The Sting: Feds' scam to ensnare Florida arms-sellers for bribery now on trial

Wake up and good morning. A major trial involving alleged bribery of foreign officials by U.S. businessmen is under way in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., and -- surprise, surprise -- Florida figures play a big role in it. Several stand out. First is John Wier III, former head of SRT Supply Inc. in St. Petersburg. he is one of four security industry executives prosecutors this week say knew they were joining an illegal business deal by agreeing to make payments to a Gabonese official.

The four executives are part of a 22-defendant kickback conspiracy case resulting from a government sting operation and a fake $15 million weapons deal. Prosecutors allege the defendants sought to provide guns, grenades and uniforms for the presidential guard of Gabon in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and laws against money laundering.

Reports Bloomberg News: "This was a corrupt pay-to-play business deal and they all jumped into it," assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan Haray said Tuesday in opening statements in court. The National Law Journal reports the four men on trial created two invoices to hide the illegal payment to the Gabonese defense minister, Haray said. The prosecutor described several meetings between undercover FBI agents and the defendants, "including one held at a restaurant in Washington's Chinatown neighborhood." The deal was a ruse, and Gabon did not actually participate in the investigation.

Another of the four defendants and a second Florida man is Andrew Bigelow, 42, of University Park, who was the managing partner and director of government programs for Heavy Metal Armory, a Sarasota company that sells machine guns, grenade launchers and other firearms.

Also arrested in what the government said was the biggest prosecution for foreign bribery by number of individuals was R. Patrick Caldwell. The former U.S. Secret Service official -- who is not among the four initial defendants on trial -- was chief executive officer of Protective Products of America Inc., based in Sunrise, Florida. He has pleaded not guilty.

Finally, Bloomberg reports, the government's case was put together through yet another Florida man named Richard Bistrong, a former executive from Armor Holdings Inc. of Jacksonville. He pleaded guilty last year to bribing officials of the United Nations and the Netherlands to obtain contracts for body armor and pepper spray, according to court papers.

BAE Systems Plc, Europe's largest arms company, bought Armor Holdings in 2007 for $4.53 billion. Bloomberg reports Bistrong, who said his conspiracy took place from 2001 to 2006, began cooperating with prosecutors in 2007. According to court records, he identified possible targets for the government. And working with the FBI, he recorded telephone and in-person meetings with the defendants. As part of the U.S. government sting, he also introduced them to Pascal Latour, an FBI agent posing as a representative for Gabon's defense minister.

Says Bloomberg: Defense lawyers said the lead FBI agent shared cigars, gifts, and meals with Bistrong, compromising the government's investigation. "Richard Bistrong was such a scoundrel that they want to pretend he never existed," Eric Bruce, a defense attorney, told the jury, adding that it is unlikely the government will use Bistrong as trial witness.

All this based on a government sting? Good luck, feds. But should be quite a courtroom drama.

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times

Posted by Robert Trigaux at 7:46:28 am on May 18, 2011