CASTOR, La. -- On the fourth Sunday in July, John Lee Cockerham was here in his hometown for the baptism of his twin sons.
People in this northwest corner of Louisiana think of him as an unlikely success story, a man who started with nothing to become a major in the Army. He and his 17 siblings grew up without electricity and running water.
Yet even after he made it out of Castor, his ties there remained strong. The congregation at New Friendship Baptist Church celebrated his last promotion with a parade. At his sons' baptism, he told fellow worshipers that he hoped to instill in his children the values he had wrested from hardship.
Less than 24 hours later, Cockerham was behind bars, accused of orchestrating the largest single bribery scheme against the military since the start of the Iraq war. According to the authorities, the 41-year-old officer, with his wife and sister, used an elaborate network of offshore bank accounts and safe deposit boxes to hide nearly $10 million in bribes from companies seeking military contracts.
The accusations against Cockerham are tied to a crisis of corruption inside the behemoth bureaucracy that sustains America's troops. Pentagon officials are investigating $6 billion in military contracts, most covering supplies as varied as bottled water, tents and latrines for troops in Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The inquiries have resulted in charges against at least 29 civilians and soldiers, the investigation of 75 other suspects and the suicides of at least two officers. They have prompted the Pentagon, the largest purchasing agency in the world, to overhaul its war-zone procurement system.
Much of the scrutiny has focused on the contracting office where Cockerham worked at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a world away from Castor in more than miles. Until the buildup to the war in Iraq, it was a tiny outpost with a staff of seven to 12 people who awarded about $150 million a year in contracts, according to Bryon J. Young, a retired Army colonel and the current director of the Army Contracting Agency.
But when tens of thousands of soldiers began pouring through Kuwait, Young said in an interview, his agency was forced to entrust nearly $4 billion over the next four years to what he described as a B team of civilians and military officers with limited contracting experience. It was a setting flush with money, he said, but lacking the safeguards to prevent contracting officials from taking it.
Affidavits from U.S. District Court in San Antonio allege that unidentified business people carried hundreds of thousands of dollars in shopping bags, delivering the money to Melissa Cockerham.
A criminal complaint filed with the court says that during a December 2006 search of their home at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Cockerham and his wife confessed to taking $1 million in bribes. When they were arrested some seven months later on charges of accepting $9.6 million in bribes, they pleaded not guilty.
Cockerham's lawyer, Jimmy Parks, in denying the charges, said his client did not have the authority to pull off such a conspiracy.
Oversight was virtually nonexistent by design. There were no auditors at Camp Arifjan, and contracts worth more than $500,000 were the only ones requiring review in Washington. Most contracts were written for about $100,000.