A businessman pleaded guilty yesterday in federal court to illegally smuggling more than $49,000 into the United States in March and lying to federal agents about how much money he had brought back.

Robert B. Grove, 62, of Clifton Heights, then made an unusual request.

His lawyer asked U.S. Chief District Judge Harvey Bartle III to order that his passport be returned to him so he could go back to work - in Baghdad. (Grove surrendered the passport as a condition of being released on bail after his arrest in March.)

Grove is a projects manager for a U.S. contractor that builds barracks and dining facilities for U.S. troops, the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi National Police.

He could face 10 to 16 months in the slammer when he's sentenced on Aug. 1.

Mark E. Cedrone, Grove's lawyer, told Bartle that his client was not a flight risk because his wife, children and other family all lived in the Philadelphia region and that Grove's wife was prepared to surrender her passport.

Cedrone further said that Grove could lose his job if he wasn't allowed to return to Baghdad.

Grove's boss wrote a letter advising the court that Grove's job duties in Baghdad required his "immediate attention" and asked that his passport be returned.

Bartle said he didn't think Grove would flee and ordered the clerk's office to return his passport so he could travel to Baghdad for his job, provided the Office of Pre-Trial Services agreed. He also ordered Barbara Grove to surrender her passport.

Federal prosecutors didn't want Grove's passport privileges reinstated.

The feds said Grove was a flight risk because he faced prison time and had been implicated in an alleged kickback scheme in Iraq. No charges have been filed.

Nathaniel Edmonds, a trial attorney for the Department of Justice's fraud section, said a government informant told investigators he had observed payments being made to Grove from Iraqi subcontractors.

Edmonds said investigators believe that at least some of the $49,000 Grove smuggled into the United States may have come from Iraqi subcontractors.

Cedrone said Grove had done some consulting work for subcontractors - designing brochures - and that that was the source of the cash he smuggled into the country.

Court papers said that on March 26 after arriving on a flight from Baghdad via Paris, Grove told customs agents at Philadelphia International Airport that he had won the cash in a high-stakes poker game in Baghdad. *