PAUL DE LA GARZA and JENNIFER LIBERTO
A contractor pleads guilty to taking bribes in exchange for his influence over contracts. His promise to name others sets off a scramble for attorneys.
TAMPA - Faced with a widening bribery scandal, officials at Special Operations Command said Friday they would review all contracts to determine if the kickback scheme left the nation's secret military commandos with inferior war-fighting equipment.
William E. Burke, 49, of Odessa, a defense contractor at SOCom, pleaded guilty to bribery in a plea deal and agreed to cooperate with federal investigators and identify associates in the scheme. He could face up to 15 years in prison.
As word spread of other criminal targets in the investigation, panic spread among employees and private consultants.
Some scrambled to retain legal counsel, according to high-profile attorneys, including Patrick Doherty of Palm Harbor. "Innocent people are concerned," said Doherty, who has been hired to represent a consultant.
Late Friday, SOCom - based at MacDill Air Force Base - said it would review all contracts handled by Burke, who was in charge of determining which weapons and military equipment would be tested and used by special operations forces.
The type of federal contracts Burke would have overseen ranged from $115,000 for a gunfire detection system to $690,000 for a field interrogation tool that would analyze stress in the voice.
In an e-mail to the St. Petersburg Times, SOCom spokesman Col. Sam Taylor said that Burke "worked on what can best be described as soldier systems, which includes things like lightweight communications systems, ammunition, small arms, etc."
SOCom oversees special ops forces such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALS, and has been at the forefront of the war on terror since Sept. 11.
"SOCom takes all allegations of wrongdoing seriously and will, as it did in this case, ensure they are thoroughly investigated and the appropriate action is taken," Taylor wrote in the e-mail.
Burke worked for Virginia-based Sentel Corp., a multimillion-dollar company that employs about 300 people nationwide, with employees like Burke on special assignments.
Burke started working at SOCom in Tampa in 1999. His job was to test and evaluate equipment and rank which private defense contractors deserved federal contracts.
He gave preferential treatment to defense companies that were represented by an unindicted co-conspirator in exchange for a $3,000 bribe in January, according to federal prosecutors. He also accepted another $9,000 in exchange for providing both market research and also preferential treatment for the co-conspirator, they said.
Burke's suggestions opened doors.
If a proposal was not placed on the SOCom "nomination list" to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, it could not receive congressional funding, the plea deal said.
In his e-mail to the Times, Taylor said SOCom was conducting a review to determine which contracts Burke had handled.
"Once SOCom completes its review of contracts Mr. Burke was involved with and receives information from any criminal investigations, we will decide the appropriate course of action on a case-by-case basis," Taylor said.
In addition, Taylor said SOCom was trying to determine if special operations forces had been left with inferior equipment as a result of the bribery scheme.
"SOCom will not be able to answer this question," he said, "until we have completed our review and received the applicable information from criminal investigations."
Steve Cole, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, said the ongoing investigation sought to answer several questions.
For example, what will happen to the companies that were given preferential treatment or awarded contracts as a result of the bribery scam? Were the companies aware that they were paying a bribe, and which companies were involved?
"Many of these questions concern the ongoing investigation we have and at this time we can't comment," Cole said in a statement.
Cole said SOCom initiated the investigation, but declined to say when it began or what prompted it. The agencies involved include the Pentagon inspector general, criminal investigators at SOCom and the FBI.
Doherty, the Palm Harbor lawyer, said one question people at SOCom are asking is what constitutes a bribe.
"What if I took five people out to Ruth's Chris Steak House, and I paid," Doherty said.
"The charge may depend on whether you had wine or not. It might come down to that, and people are concerned."
Burke said in court Friday that he worked as a systems analyst and project manager at SOCom for Sentel, a private engineering firm ranked among the top minority-owned firms in the country.
He stopped working for Sentel in June. In a statement, Sentel president James Garrett said Burke's activities did not involve the company.
"Unbeknownst to Sentel Corp., Mr. Burke was working independently from his house with his own business," Garrett said. "Sentel has a long, successful history of working with the federal government and we do not tolerate unethical or illegal behavior from our employees."
Burke didn't appear to live a lavish life. He owns a house valued at $200,000 in Farmington Village in Odessa, according to state records.
He has served on the homeowners association's board of directors. He drives a 2000 silver Infiniti, public records indicate.
In court on Friday, Burke wore a simple navy suit and answered questions in short, perfunctory phrases.
He and his attorney declined to comment after the plea hearing.
For SOCom, the bribery investigation comes at a bad time. It is already under congressional scrutiny for hiding funds from Congress, and is the target of hearings into published reports that it identified the lead Sept. 11 hijacker a full year before the attacks.
Taylor, however, said morale at SOCom could not be higher.
"We continue to be engaged in missions that are of vital importance to our country and we continue to perform those missions well," he said.