Halliburton's latest outrageous withdrawal from its ATM (American Taxpayer Machine) cries out for the Great Communicator. Back in 1976 when Ronald Reagan first ran for president, he stoked the anger of largely white audiences with brutal exaggerations of the undeserving black and brown poor.
He talked of a ''welfare queen" in Chicago who collected $150,000 under 80 different names. It turned out that she collected only $8,000 under four names. In a Florida campaign stop, Reagan bemoaned how hardworking people wait in line at grocery stores while a ''strapping black buck" purchased T-bone steaks with food stamps. It was code language in Florida, where Reagan's Republican state campaign manager told The New York Times, ''We are wasting our time to get black people registered."
Reagan said of a housing development in East Harlem, ''If you are a slum dweller, you can get an apartment with 11-foot ceilings, with a 20-foot balcony, a swimming pool and gymnasium, laundry room and play room, and the rent begins at $113.20 and that includes utilities." Less than one-sixth of the 656 units had a kitchen or living room with a high ceiling, the rent would have been four times more, and the pool and gym were a community center for 200,000 area residents, mostly Latino and African-American.
Reagan won the presidency in 1980 partially on that attack on the poor. His lasting imagery led to sweeping cutbacks in welfare under President Clinton, a Democrat, and in the current budget cuts to the poor by Republican President Bush. But Halliburton, one of our greatest cheats of the last quarter-century, continues to skip to the head of the grocery line for tax bones as the poor continue to be axed to bare bones.
Even though an Army audit determined that $263 million of charges by Halliburton were exaggerated or unjustified on its $2.41 billion no-bid contract for fuel deliveries and oil equipment repair in Iraq, the Army said it will pay all but $10.1 million of it. The Times reported Monday that the decision to withhold only 3.8 percent of the charges in question is far below the average of questionable charges that are withheld. That average has ranged between 56.4 percent and 75.2 percent over the last three years.
Audits and averages rarely matter with Halliburton. While Reagan galvanized the middle class against laundry rooms for the poor, Halliburton is the company whose subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, charged you and me $100 for a bag of laundry and $45 for a case of soda in Iraq.
During Reagan's tenure, Halliburton and KBR agreed to pay $750 million to settle a lawsuit over letting costs of a nuclear power plant in Texas skyrocket five times to $5.5 billion. Halliburton exported oil-field equipment to Libya despite a US trade ban. It ended up paying $3.8 million in fines. The government said some of the equipment Halliburton shipped could have been for nuclear weapons.
It is the company that had to pay $7.5 million in fines to settle with the Securities and Exchange Commission over accounting practices in the late 1990s that boosted its bottom line. Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's CEO at the time but was not charged with any wrongdoing. It is the company that had to pay back the government on separate occasions $6.3 million, $11.4 million, and $16 million for kickbacks and overcharges on fuel deliveries and meals for troops in Kuwait and Iraq.
Halliburton has admitted to $2.4 million in bribes to the Nigerian government in exchange for favorable tax treatment. None of this matters with a company that spent $1.4 million over the last decade, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, to get friendly key Republicans into office and has its former CEO as vice president. The reason the Army capitulated on its own audit is that everyone knows -- without anyone having to say it -- the cost of criticizing Cheney's former company.
Bunnatine Greenhouse, the Army Corps' top contracting officer, was demoted last year after saying the no-bid, multi-billion-dollar contracts to Halliburton represented ''the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career."
It is no small accident that Greenhouse happens to be a black woman. A quarter-century of presidents and the media made black women the face of welfare queens. When a black woman blew the whistle on some of the worst of our white welfare kings, it was still the black woman who was treated like a fraud.
© 2006 The Boston Globe