In postwar hindsight, Customs probe of Alcolac found lacking

April 19, 1991|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- There were no congratulations on Capitol Hill yesterday, no accolades when U.S. Customs Agent Dennis J. Bass finished describing the inventive investigation in 1988 that had linked a Baltimore chemical company with the suspected manufacture of deadly mustard gas in Iran and Iraq.

Instead, irritated congressmen greeted Agent Bass' testimony with questions -- some of them verging on the hostile.

What had taken Customs so long to expose Alcolac International's shipments of the chemicals to the Persian Gulf, the congressmen wanted to know. Why had only one of the company's employees -- and a middle-level one at that -- been prosecuted? Why hadn't the criminal fine of $438,000 against Alcolac last year been followed by a punishing civil lawsuit that would have put the company out of business altogether?

"We can't say justice has been done," said Representative J. J. "Jake" Pickle, D-Texas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight. He said he would confer with the House counsel to see if the Justice Department could be urged to file lawsuits against Alcolac executives.

The sharp inquiry, and the none-too-veiled criticism behind it, was obviously a surprise to Agent Bass and to Customs officials.

Two years ago, the Alcolac investigation and the company's subsequent conviction seemed an overwhelming triumph for Customs, and particularly for the Baltimore office that had spearheaded the case. In one case, the agency had substituted water for chemicals in 430 drums and then tracked the shipment from the United States to Singapore and Pakistan and finally to Iran.

Since then, however, the United States has fought a war in the Persian Gulf, one in which U.S. soldiers were threatened by the use of chemical weapons by Iraq. That danger focused attention on how Iraq had acquired the elements it needed to make mustard gas and consequently on the Alcolac case as well. For if the Alcolac investigation had managed to stop the shipment of hundreds of thousands of pounds of thiodiglycol -- a solvent used in the manufacture of mustard gas -- to the Persian Gulf, it also revealed that many times that amount had already made it through to Iraq.

So the subcommittee, which is considering ways to tighten the U.S. export controls, was in no mood to hand out gold stars yesterday.

The congressmen were unmoved by Agent Bass' suggestion that Customs didn't have the manpower or technical ability to monitor all chemical exports. They seemed annoyed by the testimony that Customs had received its first tip about Alcolac in 1984 but hadn't caught the company until 1988. And they seemed out raged by Agent Bass' acknowledgment that Customs had developed sufficient evidence to prosecute only a middle-level Alcolac employee, Leslie Hinkleman, the former export manager, but not any of the executives above her.

"It's amazing to me that you weren't able to find enough evidence" to charge company officials, Representative Jim Bunning, R-Ky., told Agent Bass with a bitter laugh.

Mrs. Hinkleman, speaking publicly about the case for the first time, agreed with the comments of several of the congressmen that she had been made the "fall guy."

According to law enforcement records, Mrs. Hinkleman, at the request of various brokers who worked for Iran or Iraq, falsified shipping documents to disguise the ultimate destination of the thiodiglycol, which U.S. law does not permit to be sold to Persian Gulf nations.

Mrs. Hinkleman insisted that she did not know where the thidiglycol was going, nor did she suspect that it would be used in chemical weapons -- since thiodiglycol is used in the manufacture of textiles, ink and lubricants. She said she was merely trying to help people she believed were legitimate customers.

Fired in 1989 by Alcolac after 15 years with the company, Ms. Hinkleman was ultimately convicted of giving Custom agents a false document to cover up her role in the exports. She received probation.

Four other men who acted as brokers in the chemical deals also have been convicted. Two other men have been charged but are believed to be overseas.

Mrs. Hinkleman said yesterday that she had received no bonuses as a result of the five shipments of the thiodiglycol -- which amounted to $814,000 in sales -- although some of her superiors had. A number of those superiors, she said, knew of her work on the orders, all of which were unusually large. Most orders for thiodiglycol, she said, were for five to 10 drums. These orders called for hundreds of drums.

"At the time, it was considered a great sale," said Mrs. Hinkleman, who testified in answer to a subpoena and who laughed nervously during parts of her testimony.

Mrs. Hinkleman agreed with the suggestion of Representative Ed Jenkins, D-Ga., that her superiors purposely ignored signs that the shipments were not innocent. She also said that the company never bothered to educate its employees in the possible nefarious uses of some of its chemicals.

"If a company knows what a chemical can be used for, they should tell everyone," she said. She testified, however, that she knew that thiodiglycol could be used in the manufacture of mustard gas before these sales were made.

After her testimony, Mrs. Hinkleman refused to answer any questions.

Since the case began, Alcolac was sold to Rhone-Poulenc Inc., a chemical and pharmaceutical company in Princeton, N.J. Yesterday, Frederick Von Rein, a vice president, reasserted the company's claims that it had no idea the shipments were being diverted to the Persian Gulf. He also said the company had completely revised its policies for the handling of potentially dangerous chemicals and no longer manufactures thiodiglycol.

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