On the fourth Sunday in July, John Lee Cockerham was here in his hometown for the baptism of his twin sons.
People in this northwest corner of Louisiana think of him as an unlikely success story, a man who started with nothing to become a major in the Army. He and his 17 siblings grew up without electricity and running water. His parents earned barely enough to keep everyone fed.
Yet even after he made it out of Castor, his ties to these backwoods remained strong. The congregation at New Friendship Baptist Church celebrated his last promotion with a parade. At his sons’ baptism, he told fellow worshipers that he hoped to instill in his children the values he had wrested from hardship.
Less than 24 hours later Major Cockerham was behind bars, accused of orchestrating the largest single bribery scheme against the military since the start of the Iraq war. According to the authorities, the 41-year-old officer, with his wife and a sister, used an elaborate network of offshore bank accounts and safe deposit boxes to hide nearly $10 million in bribes from companies seeking military contracts.
The accusations against Major Cockerham are tied to a crisis of corruption inside the behemoth bureaucracy that sustains America’s troops. Pentagon officials are investigating some $6 billion in military contracts, most covering supplies as varied as bottled water, tents and latrines for troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The inquiries have resulted in charges against at least 29 civilians and soldiers, more than 75 other criminal investigations and the suicides of at least two officers. They have prompted the Pentagon, the largest purchasing agency in the world, to overhaul its war-zone procurement system.
Much of the scrutiny has focused on the contracting office where Major Cockerham worked at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a world away from Castor in more than miles. Until the buildup to the war in Iraq, it was a tiny outpost with a staff of 7 to 12 people who awarded about $150 million a year in contracts, according to Bryon J. Young, a retired Army colonel and the current director of the Army Contracting Agency.
But when tens of thousands of soldiers began pouring through Kuwait, Mr. Young said in an interview, his agency was forced to entrust nearly $4 billion over the next four years to what he described as a B team of civilians and military officers with limited contracting experience. It was a setting flush with money, he said, but lacking the safeguards to prevent contracting officials from taking it.
Pages of the affidavits in United States District Court in San Antonio involving Major Cockerham read like scenes from a spy novel. They allege that unidentified businesspeople carried hundreds of thousands of dollars in shopping bags, delivering the money to Mrs. Cockerham as she played courier in the Middle East with her three small children, while her husband kept coded records of a mounting fortune.
A criminal complaint filed with the court says that during a December 2006 search of their home at Fort Sam Houston, Tex., Major Cockerham and his wife admitted taking $1 million in bribes. The investigation continued, and when the couple were arrested some seven months later on charges of accepting $9.6 million in bribes, they pleaded not guilty.
Major Cockerham’s lawyer, Jimmy Parks, in denying the charges, said his client did not have the authority to pull off such a conspiracy.
An Officer’s Suicide
Although a Justice Department official said it was too early to know if the suspects in the corruption investigation operated independently or in a network, public records indicate that several served overlapping tours. At least two officers who worked at Camp Arifjan when Major Cockerham was there committed suicide after learning they would face bribery charges. One, Maj. Gloria D. Davis of Missouri, shot herself in December 2006, a day after admitting she took at least $225,000 in bribes, government officials said.
“It is particularly disturbing that while so many of our military personnel are fighting and dying in Iraq, a few have apparently taken the opportunity to unlawfully enrich themselves,” Charles W. Beardall, chief criminal investigator for the Pentagon inspector general, said in a statement. “Their greed is unconscionable, especially in the midst of our soldiers’ heroic actions.”
The charges against Major Cockerham have hit hard in this town of 200 people, where residents have vivid recollections of him as little John Lee, a quiet, polite boy who was so worn out from milking cows before school that he had a hard time staying awake in class.
“He’s a country boy, just like the rest of us,” said Mark Plunkett, who played high school basketball with John Lee. “You throw a suitcase with a million dollars in front of us, who knows what we would do?”
Chris Guin, who considers himself one of Major Cockerham’s best friends, shook his head. “That don’t sound like John Lee,” he said. “I think he’s being railroaded.”
While others from Castor have achieved more than Major Cockerham, few started with his disadvantages. From outside the family’s run-down four-room house, it is hard to see where he got the nerve to dream. Growing up, the boys slept in one room, the girls in another, said his brother Charles. They lived on grits in the morning and corn bread at night. For water, he said, the children hauled buckets from a nearby stream.
Charles Cockerham said his father, John Lee Sr., who worked at the local sawmill, did not finish high school, but encouraged his children to do so. His mother, Clara, who worked as a teacher until her brood got too big, was even more emphatic about education.
“He used to come to my house after school and stick his head in my encyclopedias,” said Verba Egans, who is so close to Major Cockerham that he calls her Mom. She added, “It was never easy for him, but he worked hard because he was determined to make something of himself.”
The Army as a Way Out
Like many poor young people from rural towns across America, John Cockerham saw the Army as the best way to advancement. He joined right out of high school in 1984 and married a fellow soldier, Melissa Jordan, while stationed at Fort Knox, Ky. Later, he went to Northeastern Louisiana University on an R.O.T.C. scholarship, graduating in 1993 with an Army commission.
Over the next decade, according to family and military records, he served in Haiti and Germany, and earned a master’s in business from Webster University in 2004. In June of that year, he was assigned to Camp Arifjan, one of the Pentagon’s busiest supply centers.
The camp, a $200 million logistics hub, stands like an island in the middle of the desert south of Kuwait City. Major Cockerham worked in a prefabricated two-story building with about 20 other military people and civilians, committing millions of dollars on the phone or with a few strokes on his computer in his cubicle.
Military officials said a major assigned to award such large contracts for the Army Contracting Agency should have at least 10 years of experience in “broad acquisition,” a minimum of four years of direct contracting experience and annual ethics training. But the procurement workload from the Iraq war grew so big so fast that the Pentagon was forced to rush people with virtually no training or experience into some of its most complicated contracting jobs, Army officials said.
“From what I understand, John didn’t get the courses he should have had for his assignment until his assignment was over,” said Mr. Parks, Major Cockerham’s lawyer.
Oversight was virtually nonexistent by design. There were no auditors at Camp Arifjan, and contracts worth more than $500,000 were the only ones requiring review in Washington. Most contracts were written for about $100,000. It was also common for contracting officers to use “blanket purchase agreements,” allowing them to open a line of credit with a company with little more than a promissory note, much like a customer at a small-town grocery store.
Ideally, Army officials said, the purchasing cycle would be divided among at least three contracting officers. One would take an order for supplies from a unit commander and seek bids from companies to fill the order. Another would award the contract, and a third would oversee delivery of the goods. That system, officials said, would allow each contracting officer to serve as a check on the others.
At Camp Arifjan, a single contracting officer handled all three parts of the process, giving the officers broad discretion and creating opportunities for unit commanders to join conspiracies by inflating their troops’ needs. What resulted, said Mr. Young, the Army Contracting Agency director, was “a web of deceit.”
A Family Stands Accused
Court records do not make clear how far authorities believe the web spun beyond Major Cockerham. The Gulf Group, a Kuwait-based business, has sued the Army, claiming that its contracts were canceled for no reason. Major Cockerham and Major Davis were listed on the contract and cancellation documents. “My hunch is that my clients’ contracts were canceled because we would not play ball,” said Iliaura Hands, a lawyer for the Gulf Groups, “and another company, with a lot more money, did.”
The accusations against Major Cockerham depict a corrupt family enterprise. The criminal complaint filed in Texas says he arranged for representatives of companies awarded contracts to deliver payments to his wife or his sister Carolyn Blake.
Ms. Blake moved to Kuwait because Major Cockerham told her she could make more money there than she was making as a teacher in Dallas, according to the court papers. Mrs. Cockerham, who lived at the couple’s home at Fort Sam Houston, made at least two trips to Kuwait and Dubai, once taking her 7-year-old sons and 3-year-old daughter.
The company representatives would show up at her hotel room with bags of cash, then accompany her to put the money in safe deposit boxes, the records assert.
There is little evidence the couple went on buying binges. Investigators have seized $175,000 from an account believed linked to them. During the December 2006 search of their home, court documents said, the couple confessed to accepting $1 million in bribes. However, investigators reported finding handwritten ledgers with coded entries for amounts from $13,600 to $2 million stashed in offshore bank accounts. The court records allege that the major accepted bribes from eight companies, which are not named in the documents.
A Letter From Prison
At church services in Castor on Sept. 9, Mrs. Egans told congregants of New Friendship Baptist Church that she had gotten a letter from Major Cockerham, who is in custody in a federal prison in San Antonio, Tex., with his wife. (Their children are staying with Melissa Cockerham’s relatives in Kentucky.) He wrote that his wife was busy with a new singing ministry for the other women in the prison and that he had preached two sermons to the men.
He thanked Mrs. Egans for reading the names of his sons when they were baptized, just as she had done at his own baptism more than 30 years earlier. He offered no explanation of the charges against him, nor did he express any sadness.
“We are at such peace, with such zeal for the Lord,” Major Cockerham wrote, “that we know this is exactly where we are supposed to be for this short time.”
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