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ATLANTA — A Department of Defense official said Wednesday he long resisted the call of corruption while on assignment in Afghanistan before he finally relented and took a cash-stuffed backpack as a bribe. He was made to pay for his crime when a judge sentenced him to 20 months in prison as his family members wept quietly.
Desi Deandre Wade is an Army veteran who was the Defense Department's top firefighting official in Afghanistan when he was arrested at an August conference in Atlanta moments after taking a bag crammed with $95,000 in cash. He pleaded guilty to taking the bribe to influence a contract, saying Wednesday he wanted to return home to Georgia with enough money to leave behind a three-year stint in Afghanistan.
"It was a one-time deal. I thought if I did that, I could walk away from Afghanistan," Wade said in an emotional and occasionally rambling statement. "I had seen enough."
Prosecutors urged the judge to make an example out of Wade for his behavior.
"He shook them down. It was money and greed that led to this," said prosecutor Robert McBurney. "He stopped serving the country and started serving himself."
Wade, who is 40, became the department's Chief of Fire and Emergency Services in Afghanistan after years of working as a firefighter. He said he prevented millions of dollars in fire damage in that role, but that the job took a toll on him. While he was away, his relationship with his three children grew strained and he separated from his wife.
He also suffered from mental issues stemming from the stress of living and working in a war-torn nation. The trauma hit home when he saw a fellow firefighter die in a rocket attack, he said, and he eventually succumbed to the desire for quick cash.
"Those environments are ripe with corruption. It was as synonymous as the rocket attacks," he said. "People were always saying, ‘Hey, can you help me?' People have been offering bribes."
Investigators first began to monitor him in July when they got a tip from an Afghanistan-based contractor. They say he received an initial $4,000 bribe in Afghanistan to influence a maintenance contract for a firm there, and later proposed steering a $4.5 million contract to the same company in exchange for a payoff. He told the contractor he'd feed him quotes from rivals to ensure him he would be the lowest bidder, prosecutors said.
The contractor and Wade arranged to meet at a hotel room in Atlanta during the Fire-Rescue International Conference, and after some bartering Wade agreed to take a $95,000 payment in exchange for his help, authorities said. Wade took about two steps outside the hotel room when he was swarmed by federal agents.
Wade was apologetic at the hearing and tried to make the best out of his bad situation. He said he was a "workaholic" who might never have returned to his family if he hadn't landed in legal trouble.
"I truly apologize for hurting my family and myself," he said. "It's going to take a long time to recover, but I'm going to do it."