NY man charged in bribery case involving Kazakhstan officials pleads guilty to tax count

A businessman once accused of paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to officials in Kazakhstan pleaded guilty Friday to a misdemeanor tax count.

James H. Giffen, 69, left U.S. District Court in Manhattan smiling after his $10 million bail was reduced to $250,000.

He pleaded guilty to failing to note on his U.S. taxes that he controlled a bank account in Switzerland. He faces up to a year in prison and a $25,000 fine at his November sentencing.

However, Giffen's small New York merchant bank pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. It admitted trying to influence Kazakhstan officials to favor it in contracts by sending two snowmobiles worth a total of $16,000 to a senior Kazakhstan official as a New Year's gift in 1999. The bank can be fined $2 million or twice the gain or loss that resulted from the crime.

In a statement, federal prosecutors trumpeted the plea by the bank, saying the snowmobiles were meant to maintain the bank's lucrative position in which it received substantial fees if certain oil transactions closed in Kazakhstan.

The case stemmed from an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service and the FBI into the relationships between the country of Kazakhstan and U.S. executives as lucrative oil deals were negotiated during the 1990s.

The prosecution's biggest catch was a former senior Mobil Oil Corp. executive, who was sentenced to three years and 10 months in prison in 2003 after admitting he evaded taxes on more than $7 million he received for negotiating oil deals.

An indictment announced against Giffen seven years ago had accused him of making more than $78 million in bribes to two senior Kazakhstan officials in connection with six oil transactions in which four U.S. oil companies acquired valuable oil and gas rights in Kazakhstan.

Giffen and his company, Mercator Corp., were advisers to the Kazakh government on strategic planning, development of foreign investment and the negotiation of priority investment projects related to oil and gas deals, prosecutors said.

They said he caused tens of millions of dollars to be paid by various oil companies between 1995 and 2000 to Swiss bank accounts that could be secretly accessed by the senior officials in Kazakhstan, who were not identified in court papers.

The charges carried a potential prison term of more than 20 years.

Giffen's lawyer, William J. Schwartz, said after Friday's plea hearing that his client was gratified to put the matter behind him after so long.

Even the judge, William H. Pauley III, expressed relief, saying: "I commend the prosecution for having the courage to take another look at this case."