Jury in controversial Iraq War contracts case deadlocks, second time
By Ray Hanania — For the second straight time, jurors deadlocked in the Federal prosecution of a former Halliburton contract manager accused of inflating a price in exchange for an alleged bribe. The deadlock only confirmed what defense attorneys had argued in defending Jeff Mazon, the southwest suburban man who has been the center of the more than three-year-long investigation. The government’s evidence, Mazon’s attorney said, only showed that an error, not a scheme, had occurred.
The jury deadlock is a slap in the face for the prosecutors, but a black eye for the soft-spoken U.S. District Court Judge Joe Billy McDade who presided not only over this trial in Peoria, but also in the first trial in Rock Island last April.
McDade seemed to cross the line of fairness when he challenged the sole juror’s position, even though the law clearly allows for one or all jurors to determine “reasonable doubt” regarding the evidence.
The drama began last Thursday, after a day and a half of jury deliberations, when the jury foreman informed McDade by note that one juror, identified only as “Juror 32,” supported acquittal.
McDade surprised the court when he expressed his view that the hold-out juror might be “biased,” “predisposed” or possibly had engaged in misconduct. He expressed those views to the defense and prosecution teams before summoning the jury to the courtroom. After a discussion and the questioning of each juror, McDade conceded there was no evidence to suggest misconduct and he accepted the deadlocked decision.
Monday’s events were a replay of last week’s events when he expressed his “regret” that the jury could not reach a unanimous decision. McDade re-read his instructions on fairness – the third time he did so in the trial.
Defense attorneys argued McDade may have prejudiced the case by putting pressure on the hold-out juror to change her mind, not on all the jurors.
Jurors deliberated a full day Friday and most of Monday before sending a second note to McDade stating they were still deadlocked.
Prosecutors took three weeks to outline their case against Mazon, citing thousands of documents and dozens of witnesses. None of the witnesses or documents proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the inflated price was the result of an intentional “scheme,” as prosecutors alleged, but an error as Mazon’s defense team, led by Orland Park attorney J. Scott Arthur, argued. Arthur called no witnesses, brushing off the prosecution evidence as unconvincing.
“Juror 32” was not identified by name, but it was clear the court was speaking about one juror who was observed during the trial to pay the most attention to the case, keeping extensive notes. In contrast, some of the other jurors seemed bored and inattentive. Others appeared as if they had dozed off during testimony.
The inflated contract was for a Kuwaiti company to provide fuel to American soldiers as they prepared to invade Iraq from Kuwait on March 19, 2003. The contract price rose as a result of a mathematical formula that increased it based on an inaccurate application of the conversion rate from Kuwait Dinars to U.S. Dollars. Each Dinar is worth 3.3 dollars.
Several of Mazon’s supervisors reviewed and signed the contract but never questioned it. Prosecution witnesses confirmed Mazon, like all the employees at the time, were overworked, putting in up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
Mazon later quit Halliburton and took a new job working for the Athens Olympics in Greece. It was while in Greece that Mazon met the contractor and they discussed working together on a business venture. The contractor gave Mazon a $1 million loan to open a McDonald’s franchise in suburban Chicago.
Mazon never tried to hide the loan and in fact publicly declared it to U.S. Customs and to anyone who asked about what he was doing.
But McDade prevented Mazon’s attorneys from exploring key issues such as how many other former Halliburton employees started businesses with former contractors. And, McDade banned Mazon’s defense team from raising questions about errors with other contracts that were also approved during the same period.
McDade set an Oct. 30 status hearing to determine if the government would recharge Mazon a third time.
U.S. Attorney Rodger Heaton issued a statement, saying, “We believe the government presented a strong case and are disappointed the jury did not reach a unanimous verdict. The trial team is dedicated and determined to seek justice in this matter. After a brief, well-earned break, we will evaluate our position and continue to move forward.”
Mazon’s attorneys said they had no comment.
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