A Fort Lewis officer pleaded guilty Monday to stealing more than $690,000 meant to pay for security and reconstruction efforts in Iraq.
Capt. Michael Dung Nguyen entered the plea before a federal judge in Portland. His multiple, large bank deposits and lavish post-deployment spending bonanza – including luxury cars, computers, firearms, electronics and furniture – drew the attention of federal officials
Nguyen, a 28-year-old West Point graduate, could now face up to 20 years in a federal prison after pleading guilty to charges of theft of government property and structuring financial transactions. He will be sentenced March 1.
The guilty plea will almost certainly end Nguyen’s Army career. He had been serving with the rear detachment of his unit, 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, since his arrest. The brigade is now on its second deployment to Iraq. The brigade commander will consult with legal advisors, a Fort Lewis spokeswoman said.
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Nguyen served as the civil affairs officer of 4th Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment on its 2007-08 deployment and oversaw millions of dollars in cash destined for security, humanitarian and reconstruction projects through the Commander’s Emergency Response Program.
CERP funds allow the U.S. military to target spending where it’s needed most in each community, from building renovations to hiring former insurgents under the Sons of Iraq program.
According to an April story in the Los Angeles Times, Nguyen personally developed $11 million worth of plans in Diyala province. His supervisor, Maj. Eric Hefner, told investigators Nguyen was the only person with the combination to the safe where as much as $400,000 in American currency was held at a time, most of it to pay the Sons of Iraq.
Hefner said Nguyen could have stolen the money by asking Iraqis to sign receipts for more money than they received or by asking an Iraqi to sign a duplicate receipt.
He skimmed almost $700,000 and mailed the cash to himself at his family’s Oregon residence. He opened new accounts at four banks upon his return and deposited $387,550 among them shortly after he returned.
“Between June 9, 2008, and Sept. 26, 2008, Nguyen made repeated deposits of stolen currency in a manner that was intended to evade federal reporting requirements for the deposit of large amounts of money,” according to a Department of Justice news release.
And the spoils began to appear: A 2008 BMW and a 2009 Hummer H3T showed up in his driveway. He splurged on five flat-screen TVs, guns, electronics and furniture, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Erik Asphaug, who prosecuted the case.
The Internal Revenue Service noticed the size and frequency of the bank deposits and started an investigation, which soon included other federal agencies.
During a search of his family’s home in Portland, investigators discovered another $300,000.
Nguyen isn’t the first local Army officer to try to profit from the chaos of Iraq.
Capt. Cedar Lanmon last year pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Tacoma to accepting illegal gratuities. Lanmon, who was formerly stationed at Fort Lewis, was sentenced to one year and one day in federal prison.
Prosecutors contended Lanmon accepted $25,000 from an Albanian entrepreneur seeking to do work for the military in Iraq. Part of Lanmon’s responsibilities included recommending which companies were hired to do jobs for the military. He also operated a civilian business on the side, consulting with private firms working in Iraq.
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758