The St. George bank teller had a simple question for Christopher Harris: Why did he consistently withdraw $9,000 at a time, over and over and over?
Harris had an equally simple answer. He told the clerk he didn’t want to go over the $10,000 mark, which would attract government attention — scrutiny he apparently wanted to avoid for good reason.
Harris, a longtime Army reservist who served in Iraq with a Special Forces unit before becoming an independent contractor, allegedly conspired with others to defraud the government of at least $15 million through rigged contracts. Those contracts eventually totaled nearly $53 million for work during the transfer of security operations in Afghanistan, according to documents filed as part of a civil forfeiture complaint initiated by the government in Utah’s federal court.
No criminal charges have been filed against Harris or other alleged co-conspirators in the scheme, although the U.S. Attorney’s Office says its investigation is ongoing. But in the forfeiture action, filed last fall under seal, the government laid claim to money and assets Harris and others held in 13 different bank accounts; retirement and college saving funds; 20 different properties, including homes in Utah, Arizona, Florida and New Hampshire; vehicles and airplanes; silver bars and gold coins; and a half dozen firearms.
“The claim in this case was not against Mr. Harris [or other individuals], but against the proceeds and the assets the complaint alleges were purchased from the proceeds of the alleged conduct,” said Melodie Rydalch, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Utah.
The government alleges Harris used ill-gotten funds to buy and renovate homes in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., and in St. George, Utah; he also purchased a lot in St. George, prosecutors say. He bought a Ford Taurus, a 2010 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a Dodge Ram truck, and Cessna — he later sold for $582,625 — and seafloat airplanes. Harris also loaded up on silver bars, spending about $30,000 on 37 silver bars in varying weights.
Harris, who lived in Utah between April 2008 and March 2010, and his ex-wife are fighting to keep two homes and a lot in St. George. For unknown reasons, Harris opted not to claim an interest in the rest of the items linked to him in the complaint. An attorney representing Harris and his ex-wife declined to comment, saying some pleadings in the case remain sealed.
U.S. District Judge Dale A. Kimball last month issued a default judgment against Harris, who was in Thailand as of March, court documents show. The judgment entitles the government to everything but the disputed St. George property.
On June 21, Kimball will consider an emergency petition filed by American International Security Corp. (AISC), the Boston-based company Harris worked for in Afghanistan, which is trying to reclaim the $5.3 million in its frozen bank account.
The contracts • The Defense Criminal Investigative Service and Homeland Security Investigations began looking at Harris after being tipped off that he had withdrawn $238,400 from two different bank accounts between April 2009 and October 2010, all in $9,000 increments. That investigation showed Harris made about $24 million in transactions and account transfers over an approximately three-year period.
Eventually, the investigation uncovered an alleged scheme that began in 2007 with a bid on a six-month contract to manage equipment for Afghan National Army Special Forces commando teams and train them on how to do their maintenance work themselves. Key players in the alleged scheme: Harris and his long-time military buddy David Young. The two became acquainted in the 1980s while serving in the U.S. Army and also served in a Special Forces Unit in Iraq between November 2002 and June 2003.
According to prosecutors, Young was a reserve lieutenant colonel in the Army and from 2007 to 2009 oversaw coordination of Army divisions participating in the security transfer in Afghanistan.
As part of the scheme, prosecutors say Young worked with Maj. Todd Cox, then deputy commander for the Combined Security Transition Command in Afghanistan, to grossly inflate the official cost estimate of providing the equipment, maintenance and training services. Cox estimated the project at $875,000 plus “a little more” for being “close to the fight” and living conditions, court documents state.
Cox listed it as an urgent, limited-bid contract, thus exempting it from an open bid process. He gave a contract supervisor eight companies capable of performing the work, including AISC. In the end, it was one of two companies that bid on the contract.
Court documents allege Young, Harris and others conspired to ensure that AISC would get the contract — Young secretly shared the inflated estimate with the company — and that Harris would manage it.
AISC bid $899,782, while the other company bid $382,590 — a variance prosecutors said in court documents was “indicative of the inflated contract price estimate provided by Young, Cox and their co-conspirators.”
When the contracting officer questioned Cox, his superior, and Young about the project’s estimated cost, Cox gave false labor rates to justify the figure, court documents state. On July 5, 2007, the Army awarded the contract to AISC.
“David Young knew the U.S. Army price estimate, was in a position to disclose the price estimate to Harris and [AISC], and had previous personal contact with Harris, who was required to be designated as the ‘country manager’ for AISC in its bid,” court documents state. “Because AISC knew the estimated contract cost, its bid amount was virtually identical to the estimated contract price.”
Prosecutors allege AISC failed to staff the project as required in the various contracts, but still billed the government for services. Tory Milos, a captain in the New York Air National Guard and one-time girlfriend of Young, was tasked with approving invoices for work performed by contractors for the Army; she verified that AISC was “fully performing” and authorized payments to the company, according to the complaint.
“This resulted in a financial windfall for AISC,” it states. Milos benefited, too, receiving $18,000 in payments from a New Hampshire-based property development company Young co-owned, the complaint alleges. An attempt to reach Milos for comment Friday was unsuccessful.
By Aug. 8, 2009, the original contract had been extended and modified nine times, and AISC had received payments of slightly more than $26 million. And after the initial contract expired in August 2009, AISC was awarded four new sole-source consecutive contracts through Dec. 15, 2010.
In the end, the total payments AISC received through the five Department of Defense contracts, a “portion” of which it used to cover project-related expenses, amounted to nearly $54 million. About one-third of those government payments eventually flowed to Harris. In 2010 alone, he received more than $5.7 million.
Following the money • According to the complaint, Young, Harris and others moved money between approximately 115 bank accounts to “conceal and disguise” the fraudulently obtained proceeds. While some money was spent on expenses associated with the government contract, prosecutors allege large sums — more than $17.4 million between Nov. 26, 2007, and Oct. 28, 2010 — were diverted to Harris’ personal checking accounts.
From there, funds moved through a “web of complicated wire transfers” to other accounts that benefited Harris, Young, Cox and others, the government alleges. Some money flowed through real estate companies that Young either set up or helped manage in New Hampshire and Florida, where it was used to buy property or pay mortgage loans. Other funds went to World Wide Trainers, which Young also was actively involved in and which acted as a subcontractor for AISC to recruit and provide personnel for the Army contracts. Some money also was allegedly laundered through Welventure, a shell company associated with Young, the complaint states.
Welventure then trickled out funds to various accounts, and also made payments totaling $16,000 to Cox last May. The Salt Lake Tribune was unable to locate Cox for immediate comment.
While Harris used his money on homes in Arizona and Utah, Young spent lavishly in Florida. Young, either directly or through a holding company he set up, purchased 13 properties, a Sea Ray Mercruiser, a Hummer and two older Jaguars. Young also spent $332,125 on 225 one-ounce U.S. Gold Eagle coins and $247,000 on 200 one-ounce South African Gold Krugerrands. He has filed a claim to those items as well as funds in 10 different bank accounts.
As for the allegations he and others conspired to defraud the Department of Defense, Young told the Tampa Bay Tribune in April that “third parties” were responsible; in court documents he denies knowing of or participating in any scheme to defraud the government or conceal proceeds from the military contracts.
In court documents, AISC also denies that it was aware of or participated in any conspiracy or scheme to defraud the Department of Defense or to inflate project costs. It also denies that Young tipped the company about the original project’s estimate and claims there are other factual misstatements in the government’s allegations.
AISC has asked the court to dismiss the action on the grounds that Utah is not the proper forum for the dispute; it also says it should be dismissed from the action because it is an “innocent owner” of the property being seized and the value of its seized property is “disproportional to the extent of the purported wrongdoing, including any purported wrongdoing on the part of AISC.”
Who is David Young?
David Young and one-time Utah resident Christopher Harris are key figures in what federal prosecutors say was a massive scheme to defraud the Department of Defense. According to the Tampa Bay Tribune, in addition to his military service Young had an illustrious political career — becoming one of New Hampshire’s youngest state legislators at age 21, taking a lead role in John McCain’s presidential campaign in the state and attending inaugurations for both Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. It was during his years of state service that Young became known as a brash maverick, the newspaper said.
Trouble tailed him, but for a time never stuck. The newspaper reported he was charged but cleared of unauthorized use of military vehicles in the Gulf War; he sued the Boston Globe after it linked him to a housing construction scheme.
But Young was disbarred in 2006 after a string of clients accused him of mishandling their money. And in 2009, the military charged him with taking a pair of Humvees without permission while serving in Afghanistan. He was court-martialed; a jury found him guilty.