Dick Cheney- Corporate Criminal

Holes in his defence
Sydney Morning Herald
February 21, 2004

The Vice-President of the United States is floundering in bloodied water, and the sharks are circling, writes Marian Wilkinson.

Any Nigerian Government investigation into a bribery scandal would usually be dismissed in Washington with guffaws, especially if a potential witness was reported to be the second most powerful man in America, the Vice-President, Dick Cheney. But not today.

When the Nigerian Economic and Financial Crimes Commission announced two weeks ago that it was joining the Paris public prosecutor's office in examining $US180 million ($227 million) in alleged secret payments to Nigerian officials, Cheney's political enemies took note.

The controversial US defence contractor Halliburton owns one of four foreign companies accused in the scandal. The company, M W Kellogg, was bought in 1998 when Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive officer.

The Nigerian investigation is just the latest controversy swirling about Cheney and Halliburton. "We've had the Halliburton scandal of the week for a good five weeks and this is the next big one. If you look over the horizon, this is the one that's coming," says Pete Singer, who investigated Halliburton for his new book, Corporate Warriors, which delves into the grey world of private military contractors. "It's political campaign season and blood is in the water, so you're going to hear about it."

Cheney and Halliburton, the company he led from 1995 until he stood for vice-president in 2000, are now the target of so many accusations that some political analysts are asking whether Cheney has become a liability for George Bush.

A French investigating magistrate, Judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke, has been examining the payments behind closed doors since October. His inquiry grew out of the huge corruption scandal surrounding the French oil companies in Africa. But the bribery allegations involving Halliburton surfaced only recently when a French executive turned state's evidence.

After the French newspaper Le Figaro published the Halliburton connection, the company was forced to disclose the investigation in a document filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in New York on February 6.

"A joint venture in which a Halliburton unit participates is under investigation as a result of payments made in connection with a liquefied gas project in Nigeria," the company statement reads. "The Paris prosecutor's office is probing whether the payments were illegal. The US Department of Justice and the SEC have asked Halliburton for co-operation and access to information in reviewing these matters and are reviewing the allegations in light of the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act."

Cheney's office has referred all questions on the Nigerian case to Halliburton. So far there is no evidence he knew anything about the payments that were apparently washed through tax shelters in Portugal and Gibraltar. The scheme was first set up several years before Halliburton owned the company involved. But French and US reports indicate the payments did not stop after the takeover when Cheney was CEO.

The investigation is another blow to Halliburton just when the company is reeling under attacks by the Democrats over corruption, kickbacks and favouritism in its Iraq contracts handed out by the Bush Administration.

But every attack on Halliburton by the Democrats is also aimed at Cheney. A Washington political analyst, Amy Walter, says the Democrats have been working to tie the scandals surrounding Halliburton with the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in order to question Cheney and Bush's credibility.

The Democrats' aim, says Walter, "is to weave a narrative that says to US voters, Republicans have a credibility problem". And a devastating series of revelations about Halliburton in the past month has given the Democrats a lot of ammunition.

In November, Halliburton was basking in the glory of feeding US troops their Thanksgiving dinner in Baghdad when Bush dropped in. Last week, it had to announce it would temporarily halt billing for all meals fed to troops in Iraq and Kuwait after admitting it had overcharged the Pentagon $US34.5 million for catering. The company was also forced to repay $US6.3 million after it was caught overcharging for fuel imports into Iraq. The Pentagon's Inspector General is conducting a probe into the fuel contract.

As each new scandal unfolds, the Democrats are calling for an urgent investigation into Halliburton. The Republicans are resisting but are watching nervously as Cheney's poll numbers fall. Just before the Iraq war his approval rating was more than 60 per cent. Now it's just 45 per cent.

Cheney repeatedly beats back any attempt to link him with the Halliburton scandals by saying he severed all his ties before the 2000 election. But Halliburton's lucrative contracts with the Bush Administration in Iraq have become symbolic of the "special interests" in Washington that are increasingly raising the hackles of many voters.

When the US Army Corps of Engineers admitted that on the eve of the Iraq war it had awarded a no-bid $US7 billion contract to Halliburton to rebuild Iraq's oil infrastructure, Cheney's former ties with the company became an easy target. "I have absolutely no influence of, involvement of, knowledge of, in any way, shape or form, contracts let by the [Army] Corps of Engineers or anybody else in the Federal Government," he said when questioned about Halliburton.

While this may be true, he was the architect of ties between the Pentagon and Halliburton. A report by the Centre for Public Integrity in Washington says that when he was defence secretary in 1992 he moved aggressively to outsource military logistics in conflict zones. The company chosen to draw up those plans was Halliburton, which won the first major contracts under the plan - in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Rwanda. In 1995, after Cheney gave up his bid to seek the presidency, he was hired by Halliburton to be its CEO.

"Anyone who says these jobs being given to ex-government people isn't about connections is just lying," Pete Singer said. Cheney got the job "because of who he knows and the doors that he was able to open".

By the time he left Halliburton to stand as Bush's vice-president in 2000 he had earned $US35.1 million from the company. He still gets a deferred salary from Halliburton and owns $US18 million in stock options, but he has pledged these funds to charity.

Politically Cheney is vulnerable on two fronts. His old company is one of the chief financial beneficiaries from the Iraq war. And he was also the Administration's most strident advocate for the war, often exaggerating the evidence for Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction.

Until recently, Cheney maintained a cool detachment from the attacks on him, his office and Halliburton. Even now he remains surprisingly unaffected by the storm clouds gathering.

Shortly after Christmas he stunned his adversaries when he took his friend, the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, on a private duck hunting trip to Louisiana. Just three weeks earlier, the Supreme Court had agreed to hear an appeal by Cheney's office which has been trying to block the release of sensitive documents. The documents concern Cheney's energy taskforce, a group of wealthy corporate executives, including the former head of Enron, who helped craft US energy policy.

The environmental group the Sierra Club and a legal watchdog, Judicial Watch, had successfully sued Cheney in the lower courts so the Government had appealed. The Supreme Court is supposed to hear the case in April. But neither Cheney nor Scalia saw any problem with a private get-together before the case. "I do not think my impartiality could reasonably be questioned," Scalia told the Los Angeles Times.

But despite these controversies and his slipping ratings, Cheney gives no indication that he is planning to retire. The survivor of four heart attacks, he says he is in "excellent" health. He also knows his exit from the White House would only fuel the attacks on Bush's credibility and energise the Democrats.

For now he brushes off questions about his public image. "Am I the evil genius in the corner that nobody ever sees come out of his hole?" he asked jokingly in a recent interview with USA Today. "It's a nice way to operate, actually."

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