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Dick Cheney’s Nigerian nightmare
Investigators in three countries are probing an alleged $180 million bribe involving Halliburton. How long can the veep keep this tale of international sleaze from dominating the news?

THESE ARE PERILOUS times for Halliburton, the Houston-based energy-services-and-engineering giant once headed by Vice-President Dick Cheney. The beneficiary of lucrative contracts to provide support services to the US military and to rebuild much of the Iraqi economy, Halliburton — whose 2003 revenues exceeded $16 billion — has been accused of corruption, cronyism, and profiteering. "At a time when Halliburton is defrauding the federal government and facing serious allegations of bribery, we look forward to taking this debate to George Bush," said Massachusetts senator John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, in a statement issued by his campaign earlier this month.

Yet amid embarrassing headlines that accuse Halliburton of taking kickbacks from a Kuwaiti contractor and of overcharging the US government for such necessities as gasoline for military vehicles and meals for the troops, a darker, more ominous story is beginning to emerge. It is a story from a different time and place — 1995 through 2002, in Nigeria. It is a story of alleged corruption on a scale that far exceeds anything with which the company may be involved in Iraq. And because it largely coincides with the period when Cheney was Halliburton’s chief executive officer (1995-2000), it could have far-reaching implications for George W. Bush’s re-election campaign, and beyond.

The story defies easy summary. In essence, an international consortium of four companies, including Halliburton’s Kellogg Brown & Root subsidiary, is suspected of having paid a $180 million bribe to the former government of Nigeria in order to build a liquefied-natural-gas plant in that country valued at $4 billion to $6 billion. The other companies are from France, Italy, and Japan. The alleged bribe has been under investigation since last year by Renaud van Ruymbeke, a French judge with a reputation for probity and independence. Van Ruymbeke has gone so far as to suggest that he may summon Cheney to France to be questioned about what, if anything, he knew about the payments — and possibly even to face legal charges. Recently, the Nigerian government, the US Justice Department, and the Securities and Exchange Commission opened their own inquiries into the Nigerian matter. And Halliburton has retained a lawyer with close ties to the Bush administration to conduct an internal investigation.

"It’s potentially a very serious case," says Charlie Cray, director of the Washington-based Center for Corporate Policy. "Certainly $180 million is a lot of money. It’s not clear to what extent Cheney would have been involved, if at all, at this point. In other words, his fingerprints may not be on it.... On the other hand, it happened on his watch."

The Nigerian affair hasn’t exactly been a secret. You won’t be reading about it in Project Censored’s annual round-up of "the news that didn’t make the news." It has, after all, been reported in some detail on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, on Newsweek’s Web site, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Dan Rather even gave it a quick, context-free mention recently on The CBS Evening News.

For the most part, though, Nigeria has been mentioned as an aside — if at all — in stories on Halliburton’s mounting scandals in Iraq. On February 14, for instance, in an inside-the-paper story headlined HALLIBURTON LIKELY TO BE A CAMPAIGN ISSUE THIS FALL, the New York Times brushed off Nigeria in the 19th of 22 paragraphs. On February 10, the Washington Post published a story headlined CHENEY, A LITTLE TARNISHED — again, inside the paper. The only reference to Nigeria in the 970-word article was this: "It emerged last week that the Justice Department is investigating whether a Halliburton venture made improper payments in Nigeria when Cheney led the parent company in the 1990s."

Moreover, even when the Halliburton-Nigeria connection is reported, it is rarely suggested that Cheney himself may have been responsible — if not for personally approving the alleged bribe (which seems unlikely), then at the very least for presiding over a culture of sleaze. It’s true that on February 10, the Boston Globe published an editorial asking some pointed questions. "If such payments were made and Cheney approved them, he could be guilty of violating the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act," the editorial said. "If the payments were made and he did not know about them, he could not have been a hands-on leader of his conglomerate. The nation, in any case, deserves answers before it votes in November if, as President Bush has indicated, he retains Cheney as his running mate."

But unfortunately, the Globe has been the exception rather than the rule. More typical is Newsweek’s report, posted on the magazine’s Web site on February 4, which cautiously notes: "There is no evidence that Cheney was aware of the payments in question and an aide said today the vice president has not been contacted about the probe. Still, the inquiry by the Justice Department’s fraud section — which prosecutes federal anti-bribery law violations — is likely to bring new public attention to the vice president’s past at the giant oil-services firm."

New attention, indeed. On February 6, the London Guardian reported on the role of Jeffrey Tesler, a British lawyer who has been accused of acting as an intermediary in the $180 million deal. The investigation, the Guardian reported in the first paragraph, "could lead to the indictment of Dick Cheney, the US vice-president." And here is the lead of a December 20 dispatch from Agence France-Presse: "A French prosecutor is examining whether to prosecute US Vice President Dick Cheney over alleged complicity in the abuse of corporate assets dating from the time he was head of the services company Halliburton, the French newspaper Le Figaro said Saturday."

At the daily White House press briefing on January 23, President Bush’s press secretary, Scott McClellan, was asked about an Associated Press story reporting that Cheney might be in some legal jeopardy. "So the question is," McClellan was asked, "if the French want to extradite the vice-president to stand trial in France, will the president allow for that extradition?"

McClellan: "Didn’t I just talk about people using this for election-year advantage? John, go ahead."

Q: "No, wait. This is an AP report about a —"

McClellan: "Sorry, John."

Q: "— criminal investigation of —"

McClellan: "John — and we have — I have heard your political commentary about it, and I think we will move on."

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Issue Date: February 27 - March 4, 2004
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