MANATEE — It has the makings of a spy novel.
A Bradenton weapons dealer thought he was meeting with a minister of defense from Africa at a luxury hotel in Miami and later at a Washington, D.C., restaurant as he negotiated a $15 million deal to outfit the presidential guard, according to a federal indictment released last week from the Department of Justice.
It turns out he wasn’t meeting with a defense minister. Instead, an undercover FBI special agent played the role, negotiating weapons deals with 40-year-old Andrew Bigelow and 21 other business executives who are accused of bribing overseas officials to win an overseas weapons contract.
The operation, say federal authorities, is the largest investigation dealing with foreign corporate bribery and the first extensive undercover operation enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
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Bigelow is listed as a managing partner and director of government programs for a Sarasota company that sells machine guns, grenade launchers and other small arms and accessories, according to a released statement.
State records show Bigelow as a manager of Sarasota-based Defense Logistics International, 2270 72nd Ave. E., and managing member for Bradenton-based The Gun Search.Com LLC, which is listed as the owner for Heavy Metal Armory, 4235 14th St. W.
A statement denying the accusations appears on Heavy Metal Armory’s Web site.
“We have always taken great pride in doing things correctly and is the only way we believe defense exports should be accomplished, within the law,” the statement reads.
“While we cannot comment on the details of the case, we can say the following: The recent FBI/DOJ undercover sting operation which entrapped many executives from many different countries is a clear-cut case of overzealous law enforcement looking to grandstand by targeting law abiding citizens who ... in many cases actually fought to improve accountability in the industry to the benefit of law enforcement. ... We thank everyone who has shown support during these difficult times and trust that everyone will listen closely to what is said in court and not believe the media hype. There is so much more to this than most can possibly imagine.”
Bigelow did not return a message left with a man answering the phone listed for Heavy Metal Armory.
“The companies involved in this case are in the business of providing products to assist law enforcement in its fight against all crimes, including corruption,” FBI Assistant Director Kevin Perkins said in Washington. “Unfortunately, certain executives of these firms have chosen to set aside the values of law enforcement and engage in corruption by bribing foreign officials in order to enrich themselves.”
According to the indictment that the Department of Justice unsealed last week, Bigelow met with an undercover agent May 14, 2009, at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Miami, where he set up a “test sale” of weapons that would be followed up by a larger quantity in a second purchase.
Bigelow was told he would have to add a “20 percent commission” to invoices of the weapons as a kickback to a weapons company’s former vice president and the minister of defense to secure the country’s business.
On or about June 17, Bigelow allegedly received a wire transfer of $17,004 from the special agent to fund the purchase of M4 rifles. He in return shipped the rifles to a storage facility in Virginia, according to the indictment.
On or about Sept. 3, Bigelow allegedly wired the bribe money to the country’s account, according to the indictment. Bigelow met at Clyde’s, a restaurant in Washington, with a second undercover agent posing as a procurement officer to the defense minister and allegedly “accepted two copies of the corrupt purchase agreement,” according to the indictment.
The country was not listed in the indictment because it had no real involvement in the case, according to released statements.
Bigelow and 20 others were picked up Jan. 18 at a Las Vegas weapons trade show.
He is one of seven Florida businessmen who were netted in the operation. Those arrested include a Smith and Wesson vice president of sales, and dealers from countries including Israel and United Kingdom.
FBI Supervisory Special Agent Katherine W. Schweit, spokeswoman at the Washington, D.C-based field office, said the 22 people face similar charges and a majority of them were arrested and made initial appearances in court in Las Vegas. One person was taken into custody in Miami.
“When we learned they would all be attending the same trade show, we just saw it as an opportunity we couldn’t pass up,” Schweit said when asked why the arrest was made in Vegas. She said the men were taken into custody safely and in an organized manner.
A majority of the defendants are slated to appear in federal court Feb. 3 in Washington, D.C., she said.
The indictment also seeks criminal forfeiture of Bigelow’s gains from the deal.
Bigelow could receive a maximum of 35 years in prison if convicted, according to a released statement.
He faces federal charges of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, two counts of Foreign Corrupt Practice Act violations, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.