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Archives for Cronyism and Politics

The Government Dole


I am against government by crony.
–Harold Ickes, resigning as Secretary of the Interior, February 1946

It was a longer hill to climb than the one climbed by former Attorney General John Ashcroft, but former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has reason to be happy with the rewards he received upon arriving at the summit.

So do the 9/11 responders who were feeling forgotten.

John Ashcroft’s entrée into the world of private enterprise was announced in January 2008. It was then we learned of the procedure that the Justice Department adopted when dealing with corporations. In a perfect world, those companies might be charged with criminal conduct but in a Bush world they are permitted to avoid prosecution. In a Bush world, culpable corporations enter into deferred prosecution agreements. They are not criminally indicted but instead agree to have their conduct monitored for a set period by the Justice Department or someone hired by the Justice Department.

Corporations like this arrangement since they avoid trial on criminal charges. The Justice Department likes it because it is full of Bush appointees who like corporations and know that they are run by good people, many of whom paid good money to help Mr. Bush get elected and don’t deserve to have their reputations sullied by criminal charges. The price corporations pay for not being prosecuted (which is not the same thing as a bribe) is that the corporation that is not being prosecuted pays a fine and has to also pay the cost of the monitor hired by the Department of Justice.

Here is one example of how that worked in practice.

In 2005 the Justice Department began investigating five companies that make almost all the parts used in surgery to replace hip and knee joints in the United States. The companies were accused of paying kickbacks to surgeons and were charged with conspiracy to violate the anti-kickback laws. One of the companies investigated was Zimmer Holdings, a medical supply company in Indiana. After completing its investigation the government agreed to defer prosecution of Zimmer in exchange for its agreeing to pay a fine of $169.5 million and paying Ashcroft, the former head of the department to serve as monitor. Mr. Ashcroft was to be paid between $28 million and $52 million for the 18 months of monitoring.

Ashcroft is not alone in profiting from his work in government.

During his HHS tenure from 2001-05, Thompson was criticized for his failure to aggressively track and treat health problems arising among many of those who were the first to respond to the 9/11 bombing. Like Mr. Thompson, George Bush was criticized for refusing to adequately fund efforts to help those workers, despite repeated promises that that was one of his first priorities. His budget request for 2009 cut funding for those programs by 77 percent from what was appropriated in the FY 2008 budget. The 2008 budget appropriated $108 million and the 2009 budget $24 million.

Commenting on the $24 million a White House spokesman said the reduced amount reflected Mr. Bush’s “continued commitment to World Trade Center Workers.” Sen. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, said: “With the announcement of his final budget, the President had one last opportunity to demonstrate that he would not forget the sacrifices made by those who responded to 9/11 and are now sick from the toxins released during those attacks. I am disappointed and saddened to see that the President chose not to acknowledge the clear health care needs of these heroes.” Estimates of the cost of monitoring and treating Ground Zero workers are about $218 million a year.

The disappointment Clinton expressed has been ameliorated by the great news that notwithstanding the cuts in the budget, the administration has generously handed an $11 million contract to Logistics Health, Inc. of which Mr. Thompson is president. He didn’t have it as easy as Mr. Ashcroft since three other companies were considered and there was always the outside chance cronyism would not prevail. It did.

Under the contract the company will be paid $11 million. It will give annual physicals to World Trade Center responders, diagnose and treat their illnesses and provide a pharmacy benefit to the injured workers. It’s not the many hundreds of millions that a concerned president might have provided. But it’s a little something and, best of all, it helps out yet another one of George Bush’s old friends.

As his administration winds down it is safe to say that lots of his friends will find lucrative employment in the private sector. That’s the least he can do for those who have willingly worked for a man described by some as the worst president in history. There have to be rewards other than the guilt by association with which they will be forever tainted.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:37 PM | Permalink

Private Collection, Public Loss


My civil neighbor, the tax-gatherer, is the very man I have to deal with, for it is, after all, with men and not with parchment that I quarrel,-and he has voluntarily chosen to be an agent of the government.
— Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

It was impossible to know how it would turn out. Of course, there were a few hints. But they were so subtle that only someone with a bit of brain would have picked up on the clues.

Turning delinquent taxpayers over to private collection firms that make contributions to politicians instead of letting the Internal Revenue Service attend to that mundane task seemed like a great idea. So great, in fact, that no one in the Bush Administration foresaw the disastrous outcome.

The idea got its start as a result of the American Jobs Creation Act of 2004. The purpose of the act was not simply to create jobs. It was to transfer to the private sector a number of jobs that had been performed by the public sector – an almost certain guarantee of success since conventional Republican wisdom is that whatever the public sector can do, the private sector can do even better. (That approach reached its zenith in Iraq where President Bush turned over lots of the work formerly done by U.S. troops to private contractors who, it was believed, could do it more efficiently and cheaply than U.S. government personnel.)

In 2005 the IRS began farming out delinquent tax collections to private collection agencies. Three debt collection agencies were initially used and two of them had special qualifications for the work. They had made significant financial contributions to politicians. Pioneer Credit Recovery came from the district of Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds of New York and one of the things that qualified it to be a debt collector for the federal government was that it had given congressional candidates and political action committees $117,450 since 1995. Mr. Reynolds received $16,250.

Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson of Austin, Texas and its employees and spouses gave political candidates and PACs of both parties more than $400,000 between 1995 and the time the program was started. After 2007 the firm was fired although the government isn’t saying why that is. It might have to do with the fact that the firm made a $2000 donation to the mayor of Mansfield, Texas a month after he was elected or it may have had to do with the vacation it paid for a contract officer in Chicago that got the firm fired from doing work for that city.

Mark Everson who was the commissioner of the IRS at the time outsourcing tax collection was put in place admitted that outsourcing tax collection is more expensive than keeping it in-house. He nonetheless supported the privatization of collection efforts claiming he could not get sufficient funding to permit him to hire more public sector tax collectors. Following that ill-fated decision Mr. Everson left the IRS to head up the Red Cross where he served only long enough to begin an affair with the member of his staff that resulted in his loss of the job.

According to a report in the Washington Post the private collections program has been a disappointment. The goal of the program was to collect $1 billion from deadbeats owing $25,000 or less. Instead, most of those folks have gotten a tax holiday. Instead of collecting $1 billion, the private debt collectors only collected $49 million. The cost of the program was $98 million suggesting, to the mathematically swift, that it produced a net loss of $49 million.

Commenting on the program in a statement on the floor of the Senate(pdf), Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland observed that the IRS was losing at least $81 million a year by using private debt collection companies. That’s according to Nina Olson, the National Taxpayer Advocate who told Congress that if the $7.65 million spent by the IRS to operate the program were spent instead on its automated collection system it would generate $153 million in revenue. Not everyone would agree with her.

Rep. Jim Ramstad is the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Oversight Committee. He is unimpressed by the statistics furnished by Ms. Olson. He said the “real choice is whether we use private collection agencies or let these tax debts go uncollected. I hope we don’t take an enormous step backward in our efforts to close the tax gap by eliminating a program that’s working.” He didn’t say what part of the program is working. He’ll probably want to explain to Ms. Olson and Senator Cardin (and Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, another critic) the part that is working since they are apparently unaware of its successes. He may also want to explain it to his constituents.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:20 PM | Permalink

Corrupt Dictators and Their Friends


People have got to know whether their president is a crook. Well, I’m not a crook.
– Richard Nixon,
Press Conference 11/11/1973

Herewith an introduction to Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, president of Kazakhstan.

Mr. Nazarbayev was elected president of Kazakhstan by the Supreme Soviet on April 24, 1990. On December 1, 1991, Kazakhstan being on the verge of independence, he was elected by Kazakh citizens with 95 percent of the vote and most recently was elected in 2005 with 91 percent of the vote. The 2005 election was only slightly marred by the observation of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an organization he now chairs, that there were “numerous and persistent examples of intimidation by the authorities” and an “overall media bias in favor of the incumbent.” One month before the election Zamanbek Nurkadilov, an opposition leader, was said by authorities to have committed suicide. He did it by shooting himself once in the head and twice in the chest. Two months after the election, Altynbek Sarsenbayev, one of the opposition leaders was killed, reportedly by state security officials.

In May 2007, satisfied with the way he’d been performing, President Nazarbayev signed a constitutional amendment that permits him (and only him) to seek re-election indefinitely beginning in 2012 when his current term expires.

Mr. Nazarbayev presides over what has been called one of the most corrupt regimes in central Asia. He has closed newspapers, banned or refused to register opposition parties and permitted harassment of advocacy groups. Miklos Marschall, the regional director of Transparency International, an anti-corruption organization said of the president: “You don’t have free elections, and the press is pretty much controlled by his family and a significant portion of assets in Kazakhstan are directly or indirectly controlled by his family.” Marschall told the Washington Post in August, 2006. Although he went on to say that the president was making some step-by-step reforms, on the Transparency International Scale of corrupt countries, Kazakhstan is ranked 2.6, 1 being the most corrupt and 10 being least corrupt.

In 2006, Mr. Nazarbayev was a guest of Mr. Bush at the White House. Welcoming Mr. Nazarbayev 9 months after Mr. Nazarbayev had been reelected with 91 percent of the vote, a slightly envious Mr. Bush said: “I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation . . . . And I welcome you here to the White House, and I’m looking forward to buying you lunch.” After lunch Mr. Nazarbayev went to Kennebunkport to visit the first President Bush.

The visit to the White House was preceded by a visit to Kazakhstan in 2006 by Vice President Dick Cheney who in response to Mr. Nazarbayev’s welcome said: “I think all Americans are tremendously impressed with the progress that you’ve made. . . in the last 15 years. . . . I’m delighted to have the opportunity to spend some time with you here in Astana. We met 10 years ago. . . and it’s a pleasure to renew our friendship.”

An even more prominent visitor than Mr. Cheney, however, was Bill Clinton who visited Mr. Nazarbayev in 2005. He arrived in a private jet owned by Frank Giustra of Canada who accompanied Mr. Clinton on the trip. All that happened when Dick Cheney visited was a friendship renewed. According to a story in the New York Times, three important things happened as a result of Mr. Clinton’s visit.

The first was that Mr. Clinton voiced support for Mr. Nazarbayev’s bid to lead OSCE (that had been critical of the 2005 election) notwithstanding the Bush administration’s lack of support for that bid, saying: “I think it’s time for that to happen, it’s an important step, and I’m glad you’re willing to undertake it.” Then the next important thing happened.

Mr. Giustra’s small company, newly interested in uranium mining, signed agreements enabling it to become partners in three state-owned uranium projects, agreements that are described as worth tens of millions of dollars. Then the last good thing happened.

The William J. Clinton Foundation got a $31.3 million gift from Mr. Giustra. That gift was only publicly disclosed in December 2007. More recently the foundation received another $100 million from Mr. Giustra.

When interviewed on Fox News and asked about her husband’s visit to Kazakhstan and praise for Mr. Nazarbayev, Sen. Hillary Clinton said: “He went to Kazakhstan to sign an agreement with the government to provide low cost drugs for HIV/AIDS, a growing problem in Central Asia. . . .” Asked about the former president’s praise for Mr. Nazarbayev she said that Dick Cheney also had good words for Mr. Nazarbayev when he visited the country.

This is one of the few times any Democrat has used Dick Cheney as justification for a bad decision. Should she become president one can only hope Sen. Clinton doesn’t use Mr. Cheney as a role model for other bad decisions. That would bode ill for us all.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 9:26 AM | Permalink

Scooter vs. Karla Faye


Great wisdom is generous; petty wisdom is contentious.
— Chuang Tzu, On Leveling All Things

I’m almost turning into a Republican what with defending the administration at every turn. Being an impartial sort, however, it seems only right that I do so when the opportunity presents itself so as to introduce balance into this space. Now it’s the Scooter Libby commutation, offering proof, as do other things, that as President George Bush gets older he gets wiser. The Iraq war was the first evidence of this, serving as it did as Mr. Bush’s acknowledgement of the error of his youthful ways and the implicit acknowledgement that today’s youth is wiser than he was at their age. .

As has been recounted repeatedly, Mr. Bush did not flee to Canada during the Viet Nam war to avoid having to go to war, as so many with less courage did. Instead, he went AWOL, a military term applied to those who without proper authority do not show up to perform their required military service. By being AWOL, Mr. Bush showed himself willing to risk criminal prosecution and possible confinement if the fact that he had gone missing was noticed. Fortunately for him, no one noticed that he was gone and he was never prosecuted for his courageous criminal conduct.
As president, Mr. Bush felt comfortable disrupting the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men and women by asking them to help him invade Iraq. He knew that they, being wiser than he had been, would not make him look foolish by imitating him and refusing to serve, hoping as he had, that their absences would not be noticed.

The commutation of Mr. Libby’s sentence is another example of his newfound wisdom. It shows a compassion that was missing when Mr. Bush was governor of Texas.

Terry Washington was a 33-year-old convicted murderer with the communication skills of a seven-year-old. A request for commutation of his sentence because of his mentally retarded state was presented to Mr. Bush. The request was accompanied by a memorandum prepared by Mr. Bush’s then in-house execution expert, Alberto Gonzales, one of whose tasks was to prepare memoranda on requests for commutation. Mr. Bush met with Mr. Gonzales for 30 minutes before denying the request for commutation.
Mr. Washington was not the only prospective decedent whose sentence Mr. Bush refused to commute. In his first 28 months as governor Mr. Bush denied 30 pleas for clemency. One of his most notable was Karla Faye Tucker.

Ms. Tucker was a convicted murderess who converted to Christianity during her incarceration and prior to her execution. There was considerable talk that, given her conversion, clemency might be appropriate. In 1999, political news pundit Tucker Carlson interviewed then Governor Bush and asked him whether he met with any of the people who had come to Austin seeking clemency for Ms. Tucker. Mr. Bush said he had not but, according to Mr. Carlson’s report, the governor said he had watched Ms. Tucker’s interview with Larry King. Mr. Carlson reported that Mr. Bush said that “He [Larry King] asked her real difficult questions, like ‘What would you say to Governor Bush?’” Here is Mr. Carlson’s description of Mr. Bush’s description of Ms. Tucker’s response to the question: “ ‘Please,’ Bush whimpers, his lips pursed in mock desperation, ‘don’t kill me’.” Mr. Carlson reported that he later reviewed the transcript of the “Larry King Live” show and Ms. Tucker never uttered the words mimicked by Mr. Bush. Critics of Mr. Bush seized on his mocking of Ms. Tucker as proof that he was an insensitive boor. He may have been, but his thoughtful treatment of Mr. Libby evidences his newfound wisdom.

The decision on whether or not to spare the well-connected Mr. Libby the shame and embarrassment of a few months in prison was a tortuous process that took more than the 30 minutes allotted by the governor to consider the commutation of the mentally retarded Mr. Washington and others facing Texas-administered life extinction. People familiar with the discussion who were not authorized to speak and, therefore, spoke anonymously, said Mr. Bush spent weeks thinking about the Libby case. Although Mr. Bush said he thought the jury verdict should stand, another anonymous two who spoke to the New York Times said that in fact the advisors “were digging deeply into the substance of the charges against” Mr. Libby and considering “did he lie?”

Although 30 months in prison is bad for someone as respected as Mr. Libby it is less severe than killing someone who is mentally retarded. The treatment of Mr. Libby is clear evidence of the fact that the Mr. Bush who rules the United States is a far more compassionate conservative than the Mr. Bush who ruled Texas. You might not have noticed had you not read this column.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:44 AM | Permalink



Every man is like the company he is wont to keep – Euripides, Temenidae

When it comes to choosing people to serve the country, occasionally Mr. Bush gets lucky. Although he’s repeatedly letting everyone know how much he likes Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, secretly Mr. Bush must look back gratefully at the quiet departure of Eric Keroack and the non-appointment of Bernard Kerick.
Dr. Keroack was appointed head of the U.S. Office of Population Affairs shortly after the 2006 elections. He left around Easter. The Office of Population Affairs “collects, develops, and distributes information on family planning, adolescent pregnancy, abstinence, adoption, reproductive health care, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.” It was a bit of a puzzle as to why Dr. Keroack was appointed since in his non-governmental life he headed an organization called “A Woman’s Concern”. One of the things that organization opposes is contraception because, it explains, contraception “increases out-of-wedlock pregnancy and abortion rates”, an interesting if not widely accepted view. The good news about the Keroack presence in the administration is that it is no more. Dr. Keroack went quietly into the night. It was not because he opposes abortion and contraception. He was opposed to certain medical ethics rules.
At the time of his departure the Massachusetts Medicaid Office was conducting an investigation into his private practice. Disclosure of the Medicaid office investigation came after Dr. Keroack had received two formal warnings from the Massachusetts Board of Medicine ordering him to quit handing out drugs to people who were not his patients.
It seems, Dr. Keroack had a patient who had no insurance and lacked the money to buy drugs. He helped her by issuing the prescription to the patient’s daughter who had insurance. The daughter then obtained the medication under her own name at her insurance company’s expense and gave it to her mother. The board of medicine said that doctors are not supposed to prescribe medicine for non-patients. Dr. Keroack said what he did was like “killing two birds with [one] stone.” He could have said it was like creating a jailbird out of a fraud. He admitted that he had switched prescriptions but, in his formal response to the board, said that charges of insurance fraud and distributing medication to nonpatients were “patently false”
Following Alberto Gonzales’ lead when he appeared before the U.S. Senate, Dr. Keroack will be able to reconcile those statements with the facts to which he’s admitted when he appears before the board.
The board complaint is separate from the investigation by the Medicaid office in Massachusetts which has not yet said why it is investigating the doctor. But the combined inquiries probably help explain why Dr. Keroack quietly resigned and returned to Massachusetts where he can continue to promote unprotected sex as a means of avoiding pregnancy.
If Dr. Keroack was a bad appointment, Bernard Kerick was a disastrous choice to head the department of Homeland Security. When nominating Mr. Kerik Mr. Bush called him “one of the most accomplished and effective leaders of law enforcement in America. In every position he has demonstrated a deep commitment to justice, a heart for the innocent and a record of great success. I’m grateful he’s agreed to bring his lifetime of security experience and skill to one of the most important positions in the federal government.” The good news with him, however, was that he did not get the job for which he was nominated notwithstanding Mr. Bush’s enthusiastic support. News of early April demonstrated why that was an even happier circumstance than first thought.
Although Attorney General Alberto Gonzales personally vetted Mr. Kerik he failed to uncover aspects of Mr. Kerik’s past life that when exposed to the light of day caused Mr. Bush to withdraw the nomination. It included such things as being given a $165,000 home remodeling job as a gift from a New Jersey family that allegedly had ties to organized crime figures and using an apartment near the Wolrd Trade Center’s Ground Zero donated to for the use of police and rescue workers after 9/11 for trysts with his paramour.
Mr. Bush was lucky. According to the Washington Post, Federal prosecutors have told Mr. Kerik he will probably be charged with an assortment of felonies including giving false information to the government when he was nominated. If Mr. Bush hadn’t gotten lucky in 2004, today he would be explaining why Mr. Kerik retains his full confidence even though he is soon to be indicted. That would be as embarrassing as his continued support for Alberto Gonzales.
Having to publicly support two people who should no longer hold the jobs he gave them, and one who may be proved a crook, might be an embarrassment even for a president who believes that the king can do no wrong.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 7:42 AM | Permalink

New Orleans Envies Iraq


And be those juggling fiends no more believe’d,
That palter with us in a double sense;
That keep the word of promise to our ear
And break it to our hope.
— Shakespeare, Macbeth

If people in New Orleans and environs are feeling depressed at the pace of reconstruction they should take heart from Iraq. Unlike New Orleans, Iraq has not dropped off George Bush’s radar screen and nonetheless things continue to go badly on the reconstruction front.

According to the most recent quarterly report by Stuart Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, there is precious little to show for the $21 billion Congress put into the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction fund created in 2003. Eighty percent of the money has been paid out. Seventy-five million has been spent to rebuild the pipelines crossing the Tigris River at the Fatah pipeline crossing and not one pipeline has made it across. Parsons Corporation was paid $243 million for construction of 150 medical clinics. It completed 20 of the clinics. It received $72 million for construction of a police college in Baghdad that had to be closed because of sewage leaking from the ceiling.

A recent report describes a camp for housing police trainers that has never been used by anyone but has an Olympic-size swimming pool. DynCorp International was paid $43.8 million for the construction. The Iraqi Ministry of Interior ordered not only the swimming pool but also 20 VIP trailers. In response to this and other reports of poor oversight, the State Department said it is working to improve controls. It is sort of too bad that the controls are being imposed when there’s only 20 percent of the money left to spend. As soon as the committed funds have been spent, Mr. Bowen can leave his post. That would please Duncan Hunter, the California Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

Mr. Duncan tried to get rid of Mr. Bowen in 2006. He did it by inserting a provision in the military authorization bill that Mr. Bush signed in mid-October 2006 eliminating the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction effective October 1, 2007. According to Josh Holly, the spokesman for the committee (who is also on Mr. Hunter’s staff), the only reason for adding that provision to the bill was to return to a non-wartime footing in Iraq and let the inspector generals in other agencies handle the investigations being conducted by Mr. Bowen. Mr. Holly didn’t notice that Iraq was a dollar shy of being on what one would describe as a “non-wartime” footing.

When asked about the attempts to close the office none of the members of Congress who commented knew why the provision had been inserted. Congress has taken steps to resuscitate Mr. Bowen’s mandate.

Katrina’s victims are probably thinking the Iraqis don’t have much to complain about. (And Iraqis might take heart from New Orleans’ complaints, my colleague Scott Olin Schmidt writes ironically.) Although $110 billion was appropriated to help rebuild in hurricane-damaged areas, it is not being disbursed any more effectively in that part of the world than the $21 billion is being dispensed in Iraq. Tale after tale describes problems affecting New Orleans and other areas devastated by Katrina. The most recent is the news about 34 water pumps installed in New Orleans by Moving Water Industries Corp of Deerfield Beach, Fl.

Moving Water Industries supplies flood-control equipment all over the world. The pumps it supplied New Orleans were defective. Maria Garzino, a Corps mechanical engineer, sent a 72-page memorandum to Col. Lewis Setliff III, who is in charge of rebuilding flood protection. Her memorandum detailed mechanical problems with the pumps and criticized the testing procedures used. She said the pumps would break down “should they be tasked to run, under normal use, as would be required in the event of a hurricane.” The memorandum was sent when only 12 of the 34 pumps contracted for were in place. The last 22 were installed after her memorandum was sent because, as a Corps spokesperson explained, some pumping capacity is better than none. Time will tell if he’s right.

When Mr. Bush addressed the nation on the anniversary of his war he told the Iraqis and his domestic subjects to be patient. When Mr. Bush visited New Orleans in August 2006 he said of the lackluster reconstruction: “There will be momentum, momentum will be gathered. Houses will begat jobs, jobs will begat houses.” They didn’t. When Mr. Bush returned to the area in March he said one of the purposes of the trip was to tell “the people here in the Gulf Coast that we still think about them in Washington” and to show taxpayers “what their money has done to help revitalize” the region, even though that’s precious little. It’s a sad day for the country when the most assistance the inarticulate Mr. Bush can offer hurricane victims and Iraqis comes from his least powerful friends, words.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 3:34 AM | Permalink

The Mysterious Ways of the Lord


The hippopotamus’s day
Is passed in sleep; at night he hunts;
God works in a mysterious way -
The Church can sleep and feed at once.
- T.S. Eliot, The Hippopotamus

It was hard to know which seemed more like a miracle – the news that Ted Haggard was completely heterosexual after three weeks of therapy, or that George Bush had fallen in love with the National Parks.

Ted Haggard is the former senior pastor of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. When it was learned that Mr. Haggard had enjoyed a homosexual relationship while happily married and ministering to a congregation of thousands, he was forced to resign. Thereafter he entered therapy that was designed to cure him of what his flock and fellow pastors considered an affliction. The therapy included, among other things, the “laying on of hands” which, given the nature of his fall from grace (involving, among other things, receiving a massage from a male prostitute) seems slightly bizarre to those not tutored in the ways of such therapy.

According to H.B. London, vice president for church and clergy of Focus on the Family, who was describing the therapy, the symbolic laying on of hands was to be part of the recovery. “I’m sure there will be those who lay their hands on Pastor Haggard as an act of faith, calling on the act of God to restore and heal,” he said. “The prayer can be therapeutic, the laying on of hands can be ceremonial.” The therapy worked and after three weeks an overseer of the church announced that Mr. Haggard was “completely heterosexual.”

Mr. Haggard’s miraculous cure should serve as an example to the hundreds of thousands of homosexuals who had no idea that it was possible to achieve the blessed state of “complete heterosexuality” in only three weeks. (In fairness I must point out that for some homosexuals the cure period may be more like four or five weeks. A spokesman for New Life explained that Mr. Haggard’s homosexuality had not been “a constant thing.” Although I am no expert in the field I suspect that a homosexual for whom homosexuality has been a “constant thing” may find it takes an extra couple weeks of therapy to get over it. Nonetheless, Mr. Haggard is an example to the entire homosexual community for which I am sure, in due course, there will be appropriate recognition.)

Almost as exciting as observing the Lord’s work in Mr. Haggard’s remarkable recovery has been the Lord’s work in instilling in George Bush love for the great outdoors and, especially, our beloved National Parks, as shown in his recently unveiled budget.

When Mr. Bush was running for president he promised that within 5 years he would eliminate the $5 billion maintenance backlog that confronted the National Park Service. Four years after his ascendancy the deferred maintenance backlog was estimated to be between $4.1 billion and $6.8 billion. Mr. Bush was not, however, in 2004, oblivious to the plight of the Parks. Wanting to be seen as “proactive” (one of the verbally impoverished’s favorite expressions) he asked the National Park Service to create an inventory of the condition of roads, buildings, etc. in the system. Being dim of wit, it did not occur to him that such an inventory would earn him a rebuke rather than applause since it would enable the public to readily see what his broken promise meant to the National Parks.

Today Mr. Bush is being praised for something that would have caused people to call him a liar and promise breaker a few years earlier. In the 2008 budget submitted to Congress, Mr. Bush has proposed putting $1 billion into the 390 national parks and monuments by 2016, the 100th anniversary of the creation of the national park system. In addition, he calls on private donors to put in an additional $1 billion, that sum to be matched by an additional $1 billion from the federal government for a total of $3 billion. Even those who recall the tale of loaves and fishes and compare George Bush to its narrator must be slightly perplexed by the notion that a commitment of $3 billion in 10 years is as good as the $5 billion in five years promised a few short years ago.

By this newest proposal Mr. Bush has shown himself to be all things to all people – a fiscal conservative by not providing the promised $5 billion in 5 years and a friend of the parks by promising $2 billion within 14 years after the unfulfilled $5 billion promise was made.

When the president visited Shenandoah park to announce his budget proposal, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne turned to him and said: “I think Theodore Roosevelt would be very proud of you.” People with memories longer than Secretary Kempthorne’s would appropriately ask “Why?”

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 12:45 PM | Permalink

Closed Doors, Closed Minds, Closed Science


Liberty cannot be preserved without a general knowledge among the people, who have a right. . . and a desire to know. . . .” – John Adams, A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law

Science is not as intimidating as it first appears. Anyone can do it. It is important, however, that when done by scientists it be properly vetted by amateurs. And it is important that ordinary people don’t have too much information since it will simply confuse them. Thanks to the actions of George Bush we will no longer have to fear an excessively informed public that may fall prey to the importunings of scientists who believe themselves able to educate the rest of us and, more daunting still, George Bush. That is because in a moment of unexpected enlightenment Mr. Bush has realized that one of the best ways to control what people think is to control the kinds of information to which people have access. Here is what Mr. Bush has done to restrict the scientific information available to would-be students towards the end of 2006.
He is closing all the libraries run by the Environmental Protection Agency and getting rid of pesky and superfluous scientific documents found in those libraries. The EPA has maintained 29 libraries around the United States for many years that contain information about human health, environmental issues, hazardous waste, pollution control, air quality and all manner of other things with which the EPA concerns itself.
In the 2007 library services budget request by the EPA, Mr. Bush cut $2 million out of the $2.5 million requested. In anticipation of Congressional approval the EPA has already closed its library in Washington D.C. to the public and has completely closed libraries in Chicago, Dallas and Kansas City, Mo. In a letter to Congress protesting the cuts, EPA scientists observe that the $2 million cut is a small part of an $8 billion budget. That will not change Mr. Bush’s mind. Having little, if any knowledge himself and not having found that an impediment to becoming president, he sees no harm in making it harder for others to acquire that which he is lacking. Closing libraries is not the only way Mr. Bush hopes to keep citizens from being infected by knowledge. Scientists at the EPA, like its libraries, have been muzzled.
New regulations have been promulgated at the EPA that provide that when it comes to setting national air-quality standards, political appointees will have a greater role. Formerly independent outside scientists and professional scientists inside the EPA were responsible for setting safety standards for various pollutants. They made recommendations that were then sent to the political appointees who were the agency’s administrators. The recommendations were then forwarded to the White House. This was scientifically sound but it proved embarrassing to the administration when science ran up against the beliefs of George Bush and his political contributors. Under the new procedure this is less likely to happen since independent scientists will only be called on after political hacks and staff scientists have come up with what is now called “policy-relevant” science. The name suggests that policy and science should be given equal weight. The EPA is not alone in this most recent assault on knowledge-based decision-making.
New rules have been promulgated by the U.S. Geological Survey that will avoid having scientists making scientific pronouncements that go against Bush policy and beliefs. Under the new rules agency scientists at the USGS must submit all scientific papers and even minor reports or prepared talks to the USGS’s communications office. The new policy says that the USGS communications office and Mark Myers, the agency’s director, must be “alerted about information products containing high-visibility topics or topics of a policy-sensitive nature.” Mr. Myers and the office must be told prior to any submission for publication “of findings or data that may be especially newsworthy, have an impact on government policy, or contradict previous public understanding to ensure that proper officials are notified and that communication strategies are developed.”
According to P. Patrick Leahy, the agency’s head of geology and its acting director until September, the new procedure will “harmonize” the review process. It will avoid such unfortunate occurrences as the time in 2002 when the USGS warned that oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge would harm the Porcupine Caribou herd. Mr. Bush didn’t believe that. One week later the USGS had a new report saying the herd would be unaffected by the drilling.
Commenting on the new USGS rules, Jim Estes, an internationally recognized marine biologist in the USGS said: “I feel as though we’ve got someone looking over our shoulder at every damn thing we do. And to me that’s a very scary thing. I worry that it borders on censorship.” Mr. Estes is right. We all have someone looking over our shoulders. He’s called George Bush.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 3:28 PM | Permalink

A Change But Not A Rest


That was the Week that Was – Walter Cronkite’s 1960s television program

It was nothing more than a coincidence. During the days after the midterm Congressional election there were stories about how Halliburton was hoping to fix problems created by its former CEO, current Vice President Dick Cheney when he worked there. At almost the same time, President George Bush announced that he hoped to fix problems he had created in Iraq while working in the White House.
Halliburton benefited more than the rest of the country from Cheney’s move to Washington and subsequent ascendancy to the nation’s second-highest office. Halliburton didn’t benefit because being vice president enabled Mr. Cheney to steer business to the company and its subsidiary, KBR – that’s something everyone knows he would never dream of doing since he is an honorable man. Halliburton was undoubtedly glad to see Mr. Cheney become vice president because it moved him from board meetings (where he made bad decisions that cost the company money) into cabinet meetings (where he made decisions that cost thousands of people their lives). But those bad decisions helped his former employer make lots of money, thus offsetting the harm he did while serving as its president if not the harm he did the world while serving as vice president
As president of Halliburton Mr. Cheney engineered Halliburton’s acquisition of Dresser Industries, an acquisition that according to Floyd Norris of the New York Times, made Halliburton the world’s largest provider of oil field services. What Dick Cheney neglected to do, was check out Dresser Industries to see exactly what it was getting in addition to enhancing its oil field services capability. If Dick Cheney had done due diligence he would have learned that Dresser’s subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, (now known as KBR) (a) had asbestos liabilities that would eventually cost the company billions of dollars, (b) may have been involved in bribing Nigerian officials in order to get contracts in that country and (c) according to the prospectus issued in connection with its initial public offering that is to occur during the third week in November, “may have engaged in coordinated bidding with one or more competitors on certain foreign construction projects. . . . ”
KBR is now being investigated by the U.S. Justice Department for possible violations of the corrupt practices act and the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating whether KBR violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act because of payments made to Nigerian officials. Past possible corrupt practices is not KBR’s only claim to fame. As regular reader know, in Iraq KBR’s excesses include billing for food not served, gasoline not delivered, trucks not used and work not performed.
During the week of November 12 Halliburton sold 20% of the stock in owns in KBR and in 2007 the company plans to distribute the rest to Halliburton shareholders thus ridding itself of a company that was more albatross than profit center. As news and discussion of Halliburton’s stock sale and distribution designed to cure the remnants of the Cheney legacy were taking place, a chastened frat boy named George Bush announced he was hoping to fix that which until early Wednesday morning after the Tuesday election he was unaware needed fixing: Iraq.
The week before the election Mr. Bush announced that Donald Rumsfeld had his confidence and would remain as secretary of defense until the end of Mr. Bush’s term. The morning after the election Mr. Bush announced that Mr. Rumsfeld was being replaced by Robert M. Gates. That was good news. What was astonishing was the disclosure from White House insiders and outsiders, that Rumsfeld’s removal had been contemplated since late summer.
The reason it was not then announced was not because Mr. Bush intended to keep him on. According to reports citing White House insiders and outsiders, it was because, among other things, Mr. Bush did not want to give his critics the opportunity to say the change was politically inspired nor did he want opponents to have the chance to say his removal proved the correctness of their criticism thus giving ammunition to the Democrats they could use in the fall elections.
If George Bush had made his announcement when he first made the decision irrespective of the political consequences, a new Secretary of Defense could already be in place. If the change of cabinet defense secretaries suggests a change in policy and if a change in policy will ultimately result in a reduction in the number of dead and wounded American service personnel, as it surely will when the withdrawals begin to take place, it seems a pity that Mr. Bush delayed any change our of fear it might adversely affect Republicans in November. Some people would have thought saving lives should be the highest priority. George Bush is not among them.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 10:02 AM | Permalink

Built To Last 10 Seconds


I am against government by crony. – Harold Ickes on resigning as Secretary of the Interior in 1946

Here’s a surprise. Congressional hearings can be enlightening, the caliber of the participants notwithstanding. In mid-September a Senate Democratic policy committee heard testimony from two truckers about what happened to them while working in Iraq for KBR, the giant contractor. KBR, like Dick Cheney, is a subsidiary of Halliburton.
KBR has been in the news a lot since the Iraq invasion began. The invasion did not take place because Mr. Cheney as invasion enthusiast anticipated that his former employer would get millions and millions in contracts that it would incompetently perform. He thought the invading forces would be greeted as liberators and there would be no need for massive reconstruction. He was wrong. Mr. Bush destroyed much of Iraq’s infrastructure thus creating opportunity for Mr. Cheney’s former employer and proving that even though things may not come out as you anticipate, they may nonetheless have a happy outcome. The war has been a boon for KBR if less so for the Iraqis.
Notwithstanding its great financial good fortune early in the war, KBR suffered lots of bad press because of its post war activities. It overcharged the military by $27.4 million for meals. Two of its employees took kickbacks from a Kuwaiti subcontractor who was providing services to troops in Kuwait. Any relief Halliburton felt that its offspring had stayed out of the headlines for a few months came to an end with reports of the Senate testimony last month by the two KBR truckers.
The truck drivers described for the senators how KBR had sent them and an entire convoy of fuel tankers stretching for many miles, into a known combat zone with inadequately armored accompaniments notwithstanding warnings from the truck drivers that the area was unsafe. The men’s warnings proved well founded. The convoy was attacked and seven civilian drivers and two soldiers were killed. (The truck drivers sued KBR saying KBR knew the proposed route was unsafe since a battle was in progress. The drivers’ suit was thrown out by a Texas judge who said it was the military’s responsibility to protect the trucks and he couldn’t second-guess its decision to send the trucks into dangerous terrain. The lawyer for the truck drivers says he will appeal.)
KBR was not the only company up for an encore performance of incompetence. Parsons too, gave an encore, albeit in a different venue.
Parsons’ first failed performance became public in May and June of 2006 and involved a $243 million contract for construction of 150 health clinics in Iraq awarded to Parsons. Though successful in spending the money, it completed only 20 of the facilities. That proved to be no anomaly. Parsons was given a $99.1 million contract to build the Khan Bani Saad Correctional Facility North of Baghdad by June 2006. In that month it was announced that it could not complete the project before 2008 and the project would cost $13.5 million more than the amount it bid. Its contract was canceled.
Commenting on those episodes that looked to the outsider like incompetence run amuck, Erin Kuhlman, a spokeswoman for Parsons said: “Parsons performed our work in Iraq in conformance with the contract terms and the directions given to us by the U.S. government. We’re extremely proud of our dedicated employees who have performed very well under extremely difficult and dangerous circumstances.”
If Ms. Kuhlman was proud of Parsons in July, her buttons would have popped off after September hearings before a House committee with the amusing name of House Government Reform Committee. In that hearing it was disclosed by a federal inspector that, including the foregoing examples, 13 of 14 major projects built by Parsons were substandard. (The 14th was the Correctional Facility described above.)
Parsons’ greatest triumph among the thirteen, if incompetence is the measure, was the $72 million police college in Baghdad. After the building was completed it turned out its occupants should not have flushed the toilets. Here is how they found that out. After a few weeks of flushing, the connections on the pipes came loose and urine and fecal matter leaked from the ceilings into the student barracks. One part of the barracks had such bad leaks it was called the “rain forest” although what was dripping was not rain. According to reports parts of the facility were irreparably damaged and will have to be destroyed.
Earnest O. Robbins II, a Parsons vice president was asked to explain how such massive failures could occur. He said: “I have some conjectures and that’s all it would be, and that is, it took a while of use for this to manifest itself, for the fittings to come loose or whatever.”
To that a dispirited populace can only respond, “whatever”.

Posted by Christopher Brauchli at 6:46 PM | Permalink

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