Oscar S. Wyatt Jr., almost as well known for his legendary oil and natural gas prowess as his cantankerous personality, faces up to 24 months in prison after he pleaded guilty last week in a New York City courtroom to paying illegal kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime in exchange for oil contracts in 2001.

Prosecutors had not yet completed their case in the three-week-long trial when Wyatt, 83, agreed to plead guilty last week to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud before Judge Denny Chin in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. He also agreed to forfeit $11 million.

In a statement he read to the court, Wyatt admitted that in December 2001 he caused about $200,000 to be deposited into a bank account in Jordan controlled by Iraq’s State Oil Marketing Organization. Wyatt was indicted in late 2005 with five other individuals, and he had faced up to 70 years in prison if he had been convicted on all five counts of his indictment. He had also been charged with conducting financial transactions with Iraq, which was an enemy nation in 2001, and for violating a U.S. embargo with Iraq.

In the courtroom, Wyatt, who was joined by his socialite wife Lynn Wyatt, told reporters that he didn’t want to “waste any more time, at 83 years old, fooling with this operation.” Wyatt’s lawyer Gerald L. Shargel said his client’s age was taken into account with the guilty plea. “For the government to have offered this disposition at this point suggests both sides recognized the risks involved in having a jury decide it.”

After graduating from Texas A&M University in 1949 with a mechanical engineering degree, Wyatt sold drill bits. In 1951, he raised $800 by hocking his 1949 Ford automobile to begin Coastal States Gas Producing Co. The company was involved in several lawsuits that ultimately forced Wyatt to sell off a subsidiary that later became Valero Energy. In a separate case in 1980,Wyatt pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for violating federal oil price regulations.

In 1984, Wyatt attempted a hostile takeover of Houston Natural Gas, which was headed by relative newcomer Kenneth Lay, who went on to found Enron Corp. That takeover failed, but in 1985 he completed a $2.5 billion hostile takeover of the pipeline company American Natural Resources (ANR), linking up with junk bond king Michael Milken for financing.

Wyatt retired as Coastal’s chairman in 1997, and about four years later as company founder and a board member, he approved Coastal’s sale to El Paso Corp. for $16 billion (see NGI, May 8, 2000). The deal created the largest gas pipeline company in the country. However, by 2003, discouraged by El Paso’s stock market plummet, Wyatt, who was one of El Paso’s largest shareholders, launched an unsuccessful proxy fight along with Selim Zilkha, another major shareholder (see NGI, June 23, 2003).

After selling Coastal, Wyatt formed Houston-based NuCoastal Power Corp., and the oilman has continued to be involved in buying power plants and making deals. However, Wyatt’s deal with El Paso also may have also led to his latest undoing. On Nov. 29, 2001, Wyatt was overheard telling an El Paso trader in telephone tapes about an illegal payment he had made to the Iraqi government. El Paso also provided additional tapes to the government of Wyatt’s telephone calls.

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