Lashing back at congressional critics, U.S. Attorney Breckinridge L. Willcox staunchly defended yesterday the investigation and prosecution of a Baltimore chemical company for its role in shipping solvents believed to have been used for the manufacture of chemical weapons in Iran and Iraq.
A day after members of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight criticized federal agencies for their perceived leniency with the chemical company, Alcolac International, Mr. Willcox went on the counterattack.
"I was outraged at what these folks on the Hill had to say by way of second-guessing our prosecution," he said. He called the congressional complaints "grandstanding" and a "charade."
Alcolac pleaded guilty in 1989 to one count of violating the Export Administration Act and was fined $438,000. In addition, the Justice Department secured convictions against five brokers who had acted on behalf of the Iranians and Iraqis in arranging for the shipments as well as Alcolac's export manager.
According to federal charges, the export manager had dutifully followed the instructions of the brokers to disguise the ultimate destination of the chemicals, which U.S. law prohibits from being sold to Persian Gulf nations.
At a hearing Thursday to discuss toughening the export controls, members of the House subcommittee expressed their dismay with the performance of the U.S. Customs Service and the Justice Department. In particular, they said they were chagrined that none of Alcolac's top executives was prosecuted in connection with shipments of thousands of pounds of thiodiglycol to the Persian Gulf in 1987 and 1988.
"We looked at evidence in the most minute detail and followed it as far as we could," Mr. Willcox said. He said his prosecutors determined that with the possible exception of the export manager, no Alcolac employee appeared to have sufficient knowledge of the shipments to have been alerted that the chemicals were bound for the Persian Gulf.
Even the export manager was not prosecuted for helping to arrange for the shipments of the chemicals but for manufacturing a phony document to cover up her role in the transactions.
Because of the lack of evidence against company individuals, Mr. Willcox said, he decided to prosecute the company as a whole.
"Do I suspect that people in the company looked the other way?" Mr. Willcox said. "Yes, I do, but you don't like to indict people if you don't believe you have the evidence to convict them."
Mr. Willcox also said that once Alcolac was confronted with evidence that it had been used to ship the chemicals to the Persian Gulf, the company fully cooperated with the investigation. It helped lure foreign brokers to the United States, leading to their capture and their conviction. The company also fired all employees involved in the sales and stopped manufacturing thiodiglycol.
Because of that cooperation, Mr. Willcox said, he disagreed with the suggestion of several of the congressmen that the Commerce Department should have filed civil lawsuits against Alcolac to punish it further.
Mr. Willcox also took issue with the congressional critics of the Customs Service, which had spearheaded the investigation. Specifically, he defended Senior Special Agent Dennis J. Bass, whose appearance before the subcommittee had triggered its criticism.
"The biggest charade on the Hill has to do with the fact that Dennis Bass is as terrific a federal agent as exists," said Mr. Willcox. "For them to take potshots at him was unconscionable."
Mr. Bass' superior, Donald Turnbaugh, special agent in charge of the Baltimore Customs office, agreed. He said, "Agent Bass is the one of the finest investigators I've worked with in my own 30 years of law enforcement, and the Alcolac case confirms this in my own mind."