New York Korean businessman and influence peddler Tongsun Park was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison for his role in the bribery scandal surrounding the United Nations oil-for-food program for Iraq a decade ago.
Park, 71, had been convicted in July of taking more than $2.5 million from Saddam Hussein's government to bribe senior U.N. officials to convince them to ease economic sanctions against Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. He had been charged as acting as an unregistered agent of Iraq and was to have set up a back channel between then-U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and then-Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz.
The sentence was the maximum possible and U.S. District Judge Denny Chin also ordered Park to forfeit $1.2 million of his assets and fined him $15,000. Chin said Park had "acted out of greed" and "blatantly disregarded the law."
"You either bribed a U.N. official or you were acting as if you were going to bribe a U.N. official," Chin told Park, who stood impassively in the courtroom. He was taken directly into custody after saying goodbye to friends.
Park's trial and a U.N. investigation exposed a secretive network of businessmen, Washington politicians and other insiders who joined forces in the early 1990s to ease U.N. sanctions imposed on Iraq after it invaded Kuwait in 1990 that eventually led to the $64 million oil-for-food program allowing Iraq to sell its oil to pay for humanitarian goods.
Park's role in the scheme marked an extraordinary comeback - and another amazing fall - for a man who was indicted in the 1970s "Koreagate" influence peddling scandal that roiled Washington. He had funneled hundreds of thousands in cash from the South Korean government to influential members of Congress. After the case broke, Park fled to South Korea. But after bribery charges against him were dropped he agreed to return to the United States and testify before Congress on his activities.
During the era, Park was a fixture in Washington political circles. His friends and clients included the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill, Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and William Timmons, an influential Republican lobbyist who once joined forces with Park in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent the U.S. ouster of then-Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega.
"He was always known as a man who was willing to bring two people together for the right price," said Mark Califano, a former U.N. investigator who co-wrote "Good Intentions Corrupted," a book based on the findings of a U.N. probe led by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker.
Despite his past, Park insinuated himself with Boutros-Ghali in the early 1990s, acting as an unofficial intelligence adviser on issues ranging from the Korean Peninsula to Japan. He provided "first class information," "knew everybody" and was "an integral part" of Washington's political elite, Boutros-Ghali told a team of U.N. investigators probing corruption in the humanitarian program.
Park was valued by Boutros-Ghali and U.N. insiders for his capacity to secure money and political support for a variety of U.N. causes, including the organization's 50th anniversary celebration.