WASHINGTON – A federal investigation is under way to determine whether officials with the company formerly known as Blackwater Worldwide tried to bribe Iraqi officials to protect the firm's security work after fatal shootings involving Blackwater guards, according to a published report.
Citing unidentified current and former government officials, The New York Times said in Monday's editions this new probe is related to the 2007 killing of 17 Iraqis during a shooting involving Blackwater guards operating in Baghdad.
These officials told the Times that the Justice Department's Fraud Section opened the inquiry late last year to find out whether employees of Blackwater, now known as Xe Services, broke a U.S. law that prohibits American corporations from paying bribes to officials of other nations.
There was no immediate comment from the company or the Justice Department.
Last November, the Times cited unnamed sources saying that Blackwater executives authorized payments of about $1 million to Iraqi officials — approved by the company's then-president, Gary Jackson. The Times' sources said Blackwater vice chairman Cofer Black, a former top CIA and State Department official, learned of the plan while in Baghdad discussing compensation with U.S. Embassy officials and confronted company CEO Erik Prince.
But Black himself has denied the account. He told The Associated Press that Blackwater was directed to provide "to provide some financial compensation to relatives of those Iraqi victims." He said he never confronted Prince or anyone else at Blackwater and was unaware of any plot to bribe Iraqi officials.
Similarly, Iraqi lawyer Jaafar al-Mousawi told the Times that he worked with top Blackwater officials to spend up to $1 million to compensate the families of victims. He said that he was unaware of any bribery efforts and believed that news reports misinterpreted the victim compensation as bribes.
The Times said Monday that present and former officials agreed to talk to the paper only on grounds their identities not be publicly divulged. The activities of the company then known as Blackwater have remained under scrutiny in the years since the shootings in Baghdad's Nisour Square.
Last week, Vice President Joe Biden, during a visit to Iraq, announced that the Obama administration will appeal a federal court decision in the United States that dismissed manslaughter charges against five guards who worked for Blackwater Worldwide.
His announcement came after a meeting in Baghdad with President Jalal Talabani.
The U.S. government initially turned aside Iraqi demands that the American contract employees face trial in the Iraqi court system. But after a lengthy investigation in this country, U.S. prosecutors did decide to charge five of the contractors with manslaughter, and they accepted a guilty plea from a sixth defendant.
But the case collapsed on Dec. 31 when U.S. District Judge Ricardo Urbina in Washington dismissed the case, ruling that the Justice Department had mishandled evidence and violated the guards' constitutional rights.