Judge’s actions overshadow already troubled Iraq war contracts case
By Ray Hanania — Jurors in the controversial Halliburton corruption case playing out in a Federal Courtroom in Peoria complained to U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade last week they were “deadlocked” following their first full day of deliberations in the three-week long trial. The drama began when the jury foreman sent McDade a note Thursday afternoon identifying one juror as refusing to support a unanimous verdict. Instead of simply responding by telling jurors to continue their deliberations, McDade summoned the foreman who sent the note to explain why it was sent.
Declaring his fears the hold-out juror might be “biased,” “predisposed” and questioned if she was “fair,” the soft-spoken McDade then summoned all the jurors into to his courtroom to express “regrets” about the apparent deadlock.
“The court is unsure if this is a disagreement among jurors, or a breakdown in the jury process,” McDade told the jury of 3 men and 9 women as he reread his instructions that he had read twice before. “Each of you looked me in the eye and said you would be impartial. … The lone juror may feel she is being pressured but I assure you, that is not the case.”
Clearly concerned about defense protests that his actions might prejudice the jury, McDade was compelled to repeat, “This is not an attempt to pressure anyone to change their vote.”
Well, then, why tell them anything? Why not simply accept their decision or just ask them to try harder without any comment? Why force the jury to make a decision?
McDade and prosecutors are in a bind. This is the second time the case has come before McDade’s court. The first trial, held in Rock Island, deadlocked with the same prosecutors and same evidence.
At the heart of the case is Jeff Mazon, a southwest suburban Chicago man who is accused of inflating the cost of a war related contract while working for Halliburton/KBR in Kuwait in exchange for a bribe he allegedly received six months after he quit the company’s employ.
Prosecutors cited finger-pointing from his Halliburton supervisors and said Mazon manipulated an embedded dollar-to-Kuwait Dinar formula in an Excel Spreadsheet. The defense argued the spreadsheet error was a simple mistake. One Kuwait Dinar is equal to 3.3 U.S. Dollars but the mistake increased the dollar amount from $685,000 to $5.52 million.
Witnesses agreed Mazon was overworked and tired, like all of the employees at the company who worked up to 20 hour days, seven days a week as the country rushed into the Iraq War in March 2003.
The alleged “bribe” was a business deal, Mazon insisted, one he negotiated six months after he left Halliburton and took a new job in Greece for the Athens Olympics. Mazon did not try to conceal the payment and he openly declared it to U.S. Customs when returning from Greece to the states.
McDade could have simply ignored the jury foreman’s note and instructed the jurors to go back and continue deliberating. But by expressing concern about possible “juror bias,” McDade was reflecting a tenor in the case that has been decidedly anti-defense.
At the start of this second trial, McDade squared off with Mazon’s attorney J. Scott Arthur in a heated clash. McDade warned he would not give Scott “leeway” to explore an assortment of issues Scott felt Mazon needed to make his defense but that the judge said were outside the realm of the case.
The judge prohibited Mazon from arguing as a part of his defense:
· That he is being made a “scapegoat” by his supervisors at Halliburton who approved the contract and that other major contract errors have occurred. Mazon argues that the inflated contract was a mistake caused by a flawed embedded formula in an Excel Spreadsheet and not a part of a “scheme.”
· That Halliburton and his supervisors “framed” him in order to pass the responsibility from them to him. While Mazon acknowledges the contract price was a mistake, he says that the mistake was reviewed by everyone of his supervisors who were more concerned with processing government contracts as fast as possible, rather than with the accuracy of the contracts themselves.
· That the government participated in the conspiracy to heap the blame on Mazon, a small cog in a nearly one trillion dollar contract system that has pumped tens of billions of dollars of profit into Halliburton’s coffers. Halliburton’s former CEO is Vice President Dick Cheney.
· That Halliburton has a history of improper conduct. Halliburton is plagued by scandals, all unrelated to Mazon, yet the prosecutors were able to bring in two convicted felons who worked for Halliburton and who admitted taking bribes to sully Mazon through guilt by association. Mazon was not permitted to argue that Halliburton has much to lose in a trial that addresses the bigger issues.
Defense attorneys expressed concern Mazon cannot receive a fair trial under those restrictions. “The very act of calling the jurors back in to listen to the judge tell them he is concerned and then to re-read his instructions clearly pressures the one juror who supports acquittal,” Mazon’s attorneys said.
In their flash at the start of the trial, McDade offered a chilling warning to Arthur, cautioning, “Whether or not there will be a 3rd trial in this case by you is questionable.”
Under McDade’s orders, the jury deliberated about 8 hours Friday before retiring for the weekend and telling the judge they were exhausted. Jurors resume deliberations Monday.
The jury may in fact reach a unanimous agreement on a verdict and the hold-out juror may succumb to the pressure and change her mind. But the question that seems lost is “can this jury now be fair?”
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