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Did Plane Crash or Gunshot Kill Ron Brown?

  • A medical examiner was placed under house arrest for claiming Ron Brown's head had a bullet hole in it when the body was recovered.
By James P. Tucker, Jr.

Someone in the Clinton administration would rather not officially know if the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died because of a plane crash or gunshot to the head.

A hole in the skull was found in Brown's corpse after the April 3, 1996 crash in Croatia, where Brown was leading big Democratic contributors on a junket. Brown and 34 others died.

Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Cogswell, a deputy medical examiner at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, said he believes the head wound could have been caused by a 45-caliber gun.

Cogswell, a medical doctor, said an autopsy should have been performed on Brown to determine the cause of death. There was no autopsy. Cogswell said the head wound is suspicious, based on X-rays and photographs of the remains.

Military authorities have now placed a gag order on Cogswell. He received written orders not to comment to the press on Brown's death. He was ordered to refer all press inquiries on the subject to the public affairs office.

The doctor has also been placed under "command investigation" by the Air Force -- a process similar to an internal affairs inquiry. Cogswell was told he could not leave the floor where his office is located without permission of his superiors.

The death was another convenient one for the administration. Several commerce Department career employees have told The SPOTLIGHT that if Brown were not now in his grave, he would be under indictment.

The SPOTLIGHT was the first national newspaper to report on the former commerce secretary's corrupt links to Vietnamese businessmen (SPOTLIGHT July 5, 1993 and others). Brown was investigated by the FBI.

A Vietnamese-American businessman, Ly Tranh Binh, was called before a grand jury in Miami in 1994.

Binh claimed Brown asked Vietnamese leaders for a $700,000 payoff to be placed in a Singapore bank and a share of oil and other business concessions. In return, Brown would push the Clinton administration to lift trade sanctions then in place against Vietnam.

The sanctions have since been lifted.

Binh was placed under police protection after receiving death threats.

At the time of his death, several indictments were coming down on Brown, accusing him of bestowing favors, at taxpayers' expense, on big Democratic contributors.

The White House told The SPOTLIGHT President Clinton would have no comment.