QUANTICO, Va. --
By his own admission executing a cradle-to-grave fraud case with one lead agent is “very rare.”
But, that didn’t deter Air Force Office of Special Investigations Special Agent Aaron Kulongowski and fellow SAs of Detachment 631, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, from tenaciously serving justice in a federal bribery case, resulting in the recovery of $1.1 million, guilty pleas and six years in jail for the conspirators.
SA Kulongowski recruited a source, forged a previously non-existent relationship with the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Alaska and recorded the actual bribe. His efforts drew high praise from the top.
“Congratulations on the outstanding results from your bribery investigation. What a difference you made in so many ways,” wrote Brig. Gen. Keith M. Givens, OSI Commander in an email to Kulongowski, his region leadership and the command leadership. “The guilty pleas are a true testament to your hard work and tenacity in this case.”
A summary chronology leading up to the guilty pleas and sentencing phase of this case began on June 18, 2014.
That day a contracting specialist with the 673rd Contracting Squadron, JBER, Alaska, notified OSI Det. 631 of a sub-contractor who offered a government official $10,000 to overlook discrepancies regarding a contract held by the company, ADA Station Communications of Crossville, Tenn., on JBER.
One day earlier, the government official who OSI recruited to be a confidential informant made a visual inspection and told sub-contractor brothers, Herschell and John Becker, what discrepancies he found.
On June 18 the Becker brothers told the informant they wanted to “come clean,” in effect, acknowledging the faulty work. The brothers said they were told by fellow employees holding positions of “splicer” and “terminator” that the wiring was all bad.
To cut corners the Beckers offered the informant $10,000 to avoid spending $60,000 in additional repair costs. Initially, the informant thought their offer was a joke and declined in order to keep his job of 20 years. The informant’s refusal resulted in ADA ordering a replacement fiber optics cable which delayed the completion of ADA’s work by several weeks.
Fast forward to August 2014 when ADA returned to JBER to complete its work.
On Aug. 22 the Becker brothers and the informant met at an Anchorage, Alaska, restaurant where they discussed the first offer, a new offer and a third involving the communications squadron at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., from a previous ADA project.
Five days later Herschell Becker returned to Tennessee. John Becker stayed behind to complete ADA’s work. He also talked to the informant via telephone about getting a portion of a $5,000 bribe. John said he needed to talk to Herschell first. Herschell told the informant he wired the money to John. On Aug. 28 John paid the informant $5,000 in cash.
Fast forward to Jan. 28, 2015 when Herschell Becker denied bribing anyone during ADA’s visit to JBER.
The next day John Becker also denied offering or having any knowledge of his brother or any ADA employee offering money to overlook defects uncovered in ADA’s work on JBER.
The last investigative step was completed March 16. SA Kulongowski testified before a grand jury March 18. On March 19 ADA (owned by a third Becker brother) and the two accused brothers were indicted on three counts of bribery. The company and the primary conspirator pled guilty Aug. 27, 2015, leaving one brother who tried his case in federal court the following week.
“There were several key moments during the investigation where we had ‘good fortune,’” Agent Kulongowski said. “From the start we relied heavily on a witting confidential informant who had limited contact with the sub-contractors. Prosecution would not have been possible without the informant.”
Once recruited, the informant (a.k.a. the source) and SA Kulongowski carefully planned out a logical “what if” scenario.
“You can always “what if” a testable allegation to the maximum extent possible before you end up over analyzing,” Agent Kulongowski said. “The informant and I had roughly one month to prepare for the return of the sub-contractors from Tennessee.”
The investigation caught a break when the informant ran into the primary conspirator in the parking lot of a work place on base to build a rapport. That got OSI’s foot in the door.
The source was later equipped with an audio recorder to capture incriminating audio during a planned off base restaurant meeting to corroborate the initial bribe and receive a second bribe.
“We had surveillance inside and outside the restaurant with eyes on the conspirators and source,” SA Kulongowski said. “But, that audio intercept set us up for the rest of the investigation.”
Later wire intercepts over the telephone between the source and conspirators allowed investigators to arrange the hand off of $5,000 cash to the source at a pre-determined location.
While coaching the source was key during the investigation, another major turning point was the source receiving a text message indicating the $5,000 was wired to the brother to pay off the source in full.
“We were in place to watch the payment go down,” Agent Kulongowski said. “The $5,000 cash was seized as evidence to complete the bribe.”
Another integral part of the investigation took place with the support of a classmate of SA Kulongowski’s from the Air Force Special Investigations Academy.
“Special Agent Michael Crowder, then stationed at OSI Det. 106, Arnold Air Force Base, Tenn., and I conducted interviews on back-to-back days with both brothers on their turf,” SA Kulongowski said. “I did so under the guise I was from Arnold and needed to ask them about the work they performed in Alaska for a lead.”
SA Crowder made the two and a half hour drive one way to Crossville, Tenn., each day to help interview the Beckers at their place of business where they denied having any involvement or knowledge of bribing an Air Force official.
“They lied to me and it was all recorded with their knowledge,” Agent Kulongowski said. “Had they told the truth our case would not have been so strong.”
General Givens praised the way SA Kulongowski and his team (Special Agents Michael Crowder, Benjamin Youngs, Patrick Briggs, Nguyen Pham, Patrick McGee, Travis Williamson, Jason McCoy, Michael Thorn and Jacob Collins) conducted the investigation.
“I am particularly impressed by your use of multiple investigative tools and the skill in which you employed them, especially the sourcing and genuine collaboration,” the OSI Commander wrote. “I could not be more proud of what you’ve accomplished.”
This case was particularly satisfying to its lead agent.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to work this case from beginning to end,” SA Kulongowski said. “It feels good to see the fruits of your labor especially when you are still assigned to the unit receiving the allegation.”
He emphasized the trial preparations proved just as vital as executing investigative planning. Having an aggressive prosecuting attorney, who was equally thorough, helped make this case a success for OSI, the Assistant U.S. Attorney’s office and the 673rd Communication Squadron at JBER, Alaska.
“This was about how one courageous Air Force official’s integrity stood in the way of corrupt sub-contractors and how OSI brought them to justice,” Agent Kulongowski said.
(Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series, OSI: On the Case, highlighting the multi-faceted work of Special Agents as they pursue the command’s mission: Defend the Nation, Serve Justice, Protect the Integrity of the Air Force and Find the Truth.)