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Dick Cheney’s Nigerian nightmare (continued)

REGARDLESS OF whether Halliburton was involved in bribing the former Nigerian government, the fact that Dick Cheney would choose to do business with that corrupt regime is itself significant. During much of the 1990s, Nigeria, an oil-and-gas-rich nation on Africa’s west coast, was under the thumb of Sani Abacha, a brutal military dictator. Most notoriously, the Abacha regime threw thousands of political opponents into prison, and executed nine environmental activists, including the playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa.

That a future vice-president would be heavily involved in business dealings with the Abacha regime should have attracted some attention in 2000, when Cheney was chosen — chose himself, some might say — as George W. Bush’s running mate. After all, in 1996, Carol Moseley Braun, then a US senator from Illinois, was strongly criticized for paying a visit to Nigeria following the death of Abacha’s son. At the time, as recounted in an assessment by Slate, Moseley Braun claimed she was a friend of Abacha’s wife, Maryam. The trip, which also involved charges of financial impropriety on the part of her then-fiancé and campaign manager, Kgosie Matthews, played a role in her defeat when she ran for re-election in 1998. The charges were recycled during her abortive 2004 presidential campaign (see "Hitting with Her Best Shot," News and Features, December 12). In a round-up of current and former presidential candidates on its Web site, the Republican National Committee breathlessly asserts: "Moseley-Braun Made A Secret Trip To Nigeria And Opposed Economic Sanctions Against The Country, Despite Urging From Human Rights And Environmental Activists."

Needless to say, Cheney’s own dealings with Nigeria’s Abacha government were far more extensive than Moseley Braun’s. Yet she is out of politics, and he is just one stent-assisted heartbeat from the presidency. It says much about the different standards to which the media hold Democrats and Republicans. Because Democrats claim to favor human rights and democratic reform, they are lambasted whenever evidence of hypocrisy appears. Because Republicans make no such pretense, they are given a free pass.

Like most Republicans, Cheney pays fulsome lip service to the private sector. But his alliance with Halliburton had more to do with the firm’s desire for political influence than it did with the glories of the free market. According to a recent article in Newsday by James Toedtman, Halliburton’s politicking goes back to the late 1930s, when Kellogg Brown & Root founders George and Herman Brown would send envelopes full of cash to Congressman Lyndon Johnson, who used the money to help his pals with re-election campaigns. "Payback," Toedtman wrote, "came with the awarding of a 1941 Navy contract to Brown & Root for construction of sub-chasers and destroyers, even though the firm had never built a ship."

By the 1990s, the firm that had grown into Halliburton had learned the art of political subtlety. In the New Yorker earlier this month, Jane Mayer reported that Cheney, after serving as the first President Bush’s secretary of defense, had considered running for president. He ultimately decided not to take the plunge — and was hired by Halliburton after a fly-fishing trip in New Brunswick with a group of corporate executives. According to Mayer’s account, Cheney was not hired for his business acumen. "He had virtually no business experience," she wrote, "but he had valuable relationships with very powerful people" — such as Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Cheney’s years at Halliburton made him very, very wealthy, bringing him $44 million during his five years at the top.

Halliburton continues to enrich him. Last September, in an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, he told host Tim Russert that "since I left Halliburton to become George Bush’s vice-president, I’ve severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interests. I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven’t had now for over three years." That was, as a number of observers have pointed out, a bald-faced lie. Mayer reported that Halliburton pays Cheney "deferred compensation" that amounts to $150,000 per year. He continues to hold $18 million in stock options as well, although he has said he will donate any money he makes from those options to charity.

All these elements — a regime that was among the world’s most corrupt; a corporation that had long traded on political connections; and a former US government official looking to cash in — came together in the deal to build a liquefied-natural-gas plant in Nigeria. But the landscape began to shift in 1998, when Sani Abacha dropped dead of a heart attack. Abacha’s replacement, President Olusegun Obasanjo, was democratically elected in 1999. And though Nigeria remains notoriously corrupt (the second-most-corrupt government in the world, according to a monitoring agency known as Transparency International), Obasanjo has taken some halting steps toward changing his country’s reputation. The Baltimore Sun reported last week that the government even plans to crack down on those endless e-mail scams that arrive in your inbox.

This week, the Nigerian House of Representatives is scheduled to begin investigating the matter of the alleged $180 million bribe. "No doubt Nigeria has over the years lost a lot of money through these types of deals, especially in the oil industry," Chudi Ofodile, the official who’s heading the investigation, told Africa News. "If we are serious about the fight against corruption, we should beam our searchlights on these areas."

The illumination from those searchlights could shine all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

ON FEBRUARY 16, Corporate Crime Reporter, a Washington-based newsletter, published an exclusive: Halliburton had hired a lawyer named James Doty to conduct an internal investigation of the Nigerian affair. Doty — who represented George W. Bush when he bought a piece of the Texas Rangers — is a prominent member of the firm Baker Botts, whose best-known partner is James Baker, a long-time associate of Bushes I and II. Doty was general counsel to the Securities and Exchange Commission when Bush II was being investigated for insider trading; Doty recused himself, and the case was eventually dropped.

Russell Mokhiber, the editor of Corporate Crime Reporter, says he intends to keep investigating. This April, for instance, he plans to travel to Paris to attend an international conference on business corruption. Among the expected attendees is Judge van Ruymbeke, who’s heading the French part of the Nigeria investigation. "I want to go over there and talk to the guy and interview him and see what his intentions are," Mokhiber told me.

The risks for Cheney — both legally and in potentially toxic public relations — couldn’t be greater. Mokhiber says Cheney could conceivably be charged under French law with "wasting assets of the corporation." Charlie Cray, of the Center for Corporate Policy, says Halliburton shareholders could even demand that Cheney’s deferred compensation be held in abeyance until the vice-president reveals what, if anything, he knew about the Nigeria affair.

So why have the American media reported so little about this so far? And why have the reports that have appeared played down the hazards that Cheney may face? Brant Houston, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, says there are three factors at work: the media’s distaste for complicated international stories, which has grown over the past decade as many foreign bureaus have been shut down; an understandable reluctance to trumpet the findings of foreign news organizations without independent verification; and concern that coverage of such a story would be seen as politically driven.

"All that being said, I think this is a story that will get very solid, legitimate coverage, since Halliburton will stay in the news because of its ongoing work in Iraq," said Houston in response to an e-mail query. He added that "slowly but surely, US journalism is getting better at realizing the importance of international stories and is getting better at covering them, with or without the necessary resources."

Obviously the investigation into whether Halliburton bribed Nigerian officials has not yet turned up anything definitive. Already, Cheney’s and Halliburton’s defenders have suggested that Judge van Ruymbeke is retaliating against the United States for excluding France from reconstruction contracts in Iraq, or for a US investigation of dubious French business dealings regarding a failed American insurance company in the 1990s. Nevertheless, this is a potentially enormous story stretching across three continents, involving explosive charges of corruption against the backdrop of the presidential election.

Perhaps leading media organizations such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal have already committed the resources to pulling the pieces together and telling as much of this story as they can. Let’s hope so. Given the stakes, it ranks with the war in Iraq and the struggle against terrorism in importance.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his daily Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
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