Thursday, November 29, 2007

Oscar and Lynn Wyatt Dance Around the Potholes: How About a Pardon, George?

Houston socialite and philanthropist Lynn Wyatt said there are lessons to be learned from all events in life, even watching a husband of four decades plead guilty to conspiring to funnel illegal kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime.

"My philosophy is you have to dance around the potholes," Lynn Wyatt said, adding: "This was a particularly deep pothole."

The pothole in question was a federal indictment charging that Oscar Wyatt Jr., her 83-year old husband, paid illegal surcharges demanded by Saddam's regime to purchase Iraqi oil under the United Nations' Oil-for-Food program in 2001. Wyatt was accused of multiple felonies that could have resulted in lengthy jail time—including conspiracy, wire fraud and violating U.S. laws governing dealings with Iraq. He would not have survived the theoretical maximum, 74 years.

Wyatt did himself and his family a favor by agreeing to plead guilty to one count of conspiracy, acknowledging that he orchestrated a single $200,000 surcharge payment.

Defense and prosecution attorneys stipulated that under federal sentencing guidelines the plea meant imprisonment of 18 to 24 months. But in a move that may be unprecedented, Denny Chin, the federal judge on the case, reduced the sentence to a year and a day, citing an avalanche of support from admirers who spoke up for Wyatt’s multiple acts of generosity over several decades, often anonymously and to strangers.

With good behavior, Wyatt could actually reduce his confinement by about 45 days and spend the last 30 days in a halfway house.

Back in Houston yesterday to get his affairs in order before he starts his sentence in January, Wyatt said “I’m bearing up pretty well for an old man who’s going to jail.”

Given all that the Wyatts have done philanthropically and for Houston, it’s astonishing that some local official hasn’t suggested that a presidential pardon would be appropriate. Multiple justifications apply.

The case against Wyatt had some Martha Stewart aspects—in that several oil companies did what he did, yet so far only two oil executives have been convicted, counting him.

Wyatt never claimed to be a saint. He was sometimes regarded as the meanest Texas oilman. But his success in a cut-throat industry was attributable in part to a reputation for stretching regulations almost to the breaking point. He skated on thin ice often enough that sooner or later it was bound to collapse. In the Oil-for-Food abuses he seemed to be selected as an easy target (like Stewart for not fully disclosing her insider trading), even though there were certainly more egregious offenders.

In contrast with Ken Lay and several of the Enron perps, Wyatt at least had the fortitude and good grace to say in public that he had indeed broken the law, that he understood he was accountable for his actions—and to state candidly that he was settling because he was too old to waste what days he has left on earth on the futility of fighting an inevitable jail sentence.

Above and beyond the years of good deeds that influenced the judge, has the federal government ever truly thanked Oscar Wyatt for his pivotal role in December of 1990, when during a visit to Baghdad he secured the release of two dozen U.S. oil workers whom Saddam Hussein had captured in Kuwait and was holding hostage on the eve of Desert Storm?

At the time Wyatt succeeded where U.S. policy had failed. Certainly that experience colored his attitude that U.S. strictures about the Oil-for-Food program would not be very successful either. And the current Bush administration pretty much agreed with him when it pushed its own invasion of Iraq.

In other words, the country and the Bush family owe the Wyatt family big time on Iraq. Bush has cut himself, Cheney and other members of his administration a lot more slack on laws about Iraq than the government did Wyatt. It would be a nice touch for George W. Bush to pardon him.

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