DALLAS -- I KNOW the saying dictates that to the victor go the spoils. But there are serious questions emerging over the process by which US companies are hired to put out oil fires, build roads and bridges, restart oil production, and do whatever is necessary to ''reconstruct'' Iraq after allied forces deconstruct it. Some answers need to come from Vice President Dick Cheney, a major architect of the war with Iraq, according to many newspapers and columnists around the country. That's the same Dick Cheney who was, until 2 1/2 years ago, chief executive officer of Halliburton Co., a Houston-based oil field services firm that takes in nearly $20 billion annually.
It is a Halliburton subsidiary -- Kellogg, Brown & Root -- that landed on a short list of companies invited by the US Agency for International Development to bid on what could grow to be a $900 million contract to rebuild Iraq. That's the same Kellogg, Brown & Root that was recently awarded, by the Defense Department, the contract to put out fires at oil fields in Iraq.
Good work if you can get it. Oil-field firefighting firms fetch up to $50,000 per day, and it can take weeks to cap a single well. There's no telling how much work there will be in Iraq, but experience says there could be plenty.
In the first Gulf War, Iraqis torched more than 700 oil wells in Kuwait. About half the fires were extinguished by Halliburton.
There's that name again.
And just to prove what a small world it is, the man who was secretary of defense in 1991 was later himself awarded a choice position: CEO of Halliburton. His name: Dick Cheney.
The Halliburton gig, from 1995 to 2000, was a cash cow for Cheney. During his final 8 1/2 months on the job, he pulled down a salary of $806,332 and collected another $100,000 in benefits.
And, mind you, all this was occurring while he was directing George W. Bush's search for a running mate.
Not only did Halliburton not seem to mind that its CEO was moonlighting as a headhunter, it gave Cheney a $1.5 million bonus. But that was cookie jar money compared with what Cheney pocketed when Bush made him his running mate. Cheney then sold his stock options and pocketed another $22 million and change.
Now $22 million and change isn't just a golden handshake. It's a wet, sloppy kiss. And that brings us to the questions. Are the new contracts for Halliburton Cheney's idea of reciprocity? If not, why was the process done by invitation only and not opened to other bids? And why was all this done in relative quiet?
Moreover, why hasn't the vice president's office been more forthcoming in trying to clear up any confusion about any benefit that Halliburton might derive from having its former CEO now sitting to the right hand of the president? Why has Cheney's office typically referred inquiring reporters from The Washington Post to Halliburton, only to have Halliburton refer them back to the vice president?
And given that these are tax dollars we're talking about (lots of them), why isn't there more transparency in the whole process?
Americans may never learn the answers. After howls of protests from competing firms around the world that were aced out of the Iraqi reconstruction bidding process, the government has now shifted the responsibility for overseeing the oil-field contracts to the Army Corps of Engineers and stamped the matter ''classified.''
And why is that, exactly?
Here's the big question: Did the vice president of the United States use his influence to help make his wealthy friends at his old company wealthier?
No one knows. And it's mighty hard to find out when no one is talking and folks are giving reporters the run-around. That has to stop. Cheney should speak up and settle once and for all these questions about how his private sector experience may be affecting his public service.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a syndicated columnist.
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