NEW YORK – The United Nations Oil-for-Food (search) scandal went from being a bureaucratic mess to a bona-fide criminal matter on Jan. 18 when an Iraqi-American who was under investigation pleaded guilty to taking part in what may be the world's largest financial scam.
With Samir Vincent's (search) guilty plea, U.S. prosecutors are now investigating the matter to determine the extent of the criminal activities and whether more Americans should be charged.
"The [Saddam] Hussein regime had accomplices in corrupting and weakening the international sanctions," Attorney General John Ashcroft said Jan. 18. "Today, one of those accomplices becomes the first to be convicted under the Justice Department's active and ongoing probe of fraud and abuse in the U.N. Oil-for-Food program."
Ashcroft announced the plea agreement reached with Vincent, an Annandale, Va., man who was born in Iraq but came to the United States as a young man in 1958 to attend Boston College. He later became a U.S. citizen and businessman who advocated for Iraqi causes.
Vincent pleaded guilty to making false statements on tax returns, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government and violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (search).
For the past decade, Vincent was working under the direct orders of Saddam — using bribe money from the former Iraqi dictator — to get the United States to lift the U.N. sanctions against that country.
Among the people Vincent lobbied were former President Jimmy Carter (search), who, in 1999, met with a number of Iraqi religious leaders at Vincent's request. Vincent also lobbied former Republican vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp (search), who later wrote a letter to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott that pressed the case against sanctions.
Kemp said that letter had nothing to do with Vincent and neither he, nor Carter, are accused of doing anything illegal.
"He misled a lot of people, including Jimmy Carter and others, and misled me. But I'm not part of the investigation," Kemp told FOX News.
Saddam paid Vincent as much as $5 million in cash and oil vouchers, which entitled the Iraqi-American to buy discounted Iraqi oil. Now facing 28 years in prison for lying on his taxes, violating Iraqi sanctions and acting as an unregistered agent for Iraq, Vincent is turning states evidence.
"I think he was a perfect first guy for them to start the investigation with. Just big enough, not the big fish but big enough to know everybody in the process, so he could create fear in people," said Joe DiGenova (search), a former U.S. attorney and independent counsel.
DiGenova said another way to create fear is to roll out the Justice Department's heaviest hitter. In this case, it was Ashcroft, who was attorney general at the time of the announcement.
Ashcroft making the announcement himself helped "to demonstrate to the world that the Oil-for-Food problem at the U.N. was not just a minor matter," DiGenova said. "That, in all likelihood, it would metastasize and become pretty ugly."
Since then, former Bush counsel Alberto Gonzales (search) has replaced Ashcroft as the nation's top law enforcer.
Vincent apparently wasn't the only American who received Oil-for-Food largesse from Saddam.
Another name on the special oil voucher's list is that of a prominent Detroit area businessman, Ahakir Al-Khafaji (search), who develops shopping malls but who also decided to fight Iraqi sanctions.
There are reports that Al-Khafaji gave $400,000 for a film called "Shifting Sands," which was critical of U.S. policy on Iraq. The producer of the film, Scott Ritter (search), was an arms inspector for the U.N. in the 1990s who, in 2003, opposed Operation Iraqi Freedom and claimed that Saddam didn't have weapons of mass destruction.
Al-Khafaji also gave freely to American politicians.
He helped arrange for three Democratic congressmen to travel to Iraqi before Operation Iraqi Freedom — David Bonior (search) of Michigan, Mike Thompson (search) of California and Jim McDermott (search) of Washington — all of whom used the visit to speak out against the impending war.
"We recognized that in the past Saddam Hussein has done things with weapons of mass destruction. What we want today is to disarm him ... not to have regime change," McDermott said while on the trip.
None of those lawmakers are accused of doing anything wrong by simply accepting donations from Al-Khafaji. McDermott even returned a $5,000 donation made to his legal defense fund.
FOX News' Eric Shawn tried to talk with Al-Khafaji by going to his house and his office, but the FOX crew was turned away. Al-Khafaji has denied wrongdoing elsewhere and he has not been charged with any crime.
Nor has a third American on Saddam's voucher list, Houston oil mogul Oscar Wyatt (search), who also said he's done nothing wrong.
What should concern Americans is whether Saddam still succeeded in influencing U.S. policy. So far, U.S. investigators in Congress, the Justice Department, and in the Iraqi Survey Group, have not reported any evidence of that. If anything, ambassador Richard Williamson (search) insists, the United States consistently fought any concessions to Saddam under Oil-for-Food.
"The U.S. was trying to keep it as strong as it was with other countries trying to weaken it," Williamson said.
Those other countries were trying to weaken the program and were getting help from people on Saddam's payroll to get around the United Nations. That's where Vincent came in.
According to court records, he not only lobbied U.N. officials for Saddam, he even paid one off. It's not publicly known who that U.N. official is, but the Justice Department likely does if Vincent is talking.
"I think the most important thing is he is someone who's in the meetings, talked directly to the people who were scamming the Oil-for-Food program — he's basically the keys to the kingdom," DiGenova said. "I think anybody who touched the Oil-for-Food program, got money, and did so without following the laws of the United States — they've got a lot to worry about."
FOX News' Eric Shawn, Jonathan Wachtel, Brian Gaffney, George Russell, Grace Cutler and Betsy Petrick contributed to this report.