Wednesday, March 16, 2005

March 15, 2005

Two Questions

Question No.1: How much does a company have to steal from taxpayers before someone gets indicted?

I cut my journalistic teeth on corporate fraud. The first thing I learned investigating allegations of financial fraud was – sure, “to follow the money,” but also that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, get the orange sauce ready.

For the past two years Halliburton has been quacking like a 2-ton duck bellied up to our national ATM. So, I was wondering, why hasn’t anyone shot the felonious fowl yet?

Yesterday the GAO disclosed they had discovered one of Halliburton’s well-feathered nests with $108 million of stolen federal funds in it. Of course no in Washington uses such an indelicate term as “stolen,” because that would require the handcuffs to come out. Instead they call these little affairs “overcharges.”

What’s an overcharge? Well, there are two types of overcharges, accidental and purposeful. We can forget the accidental type here because Halliburton insists it deserves to be paid as it billed.

So, a purposeful overcharges is when a company purposely bills a customer for more than what the customer really owes. If the customer pays the bill the difference between what was really owed and what was paid as an overcharge is money stolen from the customer.

We need other element to prove guilt. Under federal law a person must mean to commit a financial crime. So far the GAO has released only one piece of evidence we can examine to determine Halliburton’s state of mind, but it's a doozy.

After the fall of the Saddam regime Halliburton billed the government $82,000 for some liquefied natural gas. Then Halliburton billed the government $27 million dollars for transporting it from Kuwait to Baghdad. That’s about 300 miles – a taxi bill that comes to something like $90,000 a mile.

And that’s just one of the dozens of “questionable” Halliburton billings since the company bagged the lion’s share of post-Iraq war contracts.

Quack, quack, quack… the noise has become deafening. Yet the Department of Justice shows more interest in what library books we taxpayers are checking out of our local libraries than the hundreds of millions of our dollars disappearing into Halliburton’s coffers.

I know members of Congress read the same news I read, and they get the GAO’s report as well. So, why are subpoenas going to just baseball players this week and not Halliburton execs as well? You might want to ask your member of Congress to explain that one. Here, let me make it easy for you.

But don’t expect much. Democrats have triangulated themselves into such a powerless state that we now have a defacto one-party government. I have stopped expecting Democrats to do anything but talk.

What about Republicans? Aren’t these the folks who rose to power with their “Contract with America?” Didn’t they then, and ever since, promise to bring fiscal responsibility back? Aren’t they the party of America’s “moral rebirth?” Don’t they preach that people should be held responsible for their actions?

Well, yeah, that’s the GOP all right, but you missed the small print in that contract. Fiscal responsibility? Sure, but only when it comes to domestic social programs. The small print must have also excluded no-bid contracts for connected companies. And, since there was no bid, how could there be an overcharge? Right? I get it.

So, even though the nation now struggles under the weight of half trillion-dollar annual budget deficits, no one is overly concerned about a Halliburton looting the treasury for a few hundred bil. Where’s the outrage over this? Where?

In the old days.. the 1980’s, representatives like Henry “Hank” Gonzalez, D-Texas, would spend hours on the House Floor after everyone went home, lambasting the administration and corporate crooks for all to watch on C-Span. He read aloud from investigator’s reports, and he named names.

Where are the Henry Gonzalez’s today? Nowhere.

Memo to Democrats. Maybe all you have the power to do right now is talk. So use it. Talk. Talk loudly. Stand up for all of us who don’t have seats on the Halliburton gravy train. Make Hank proud.

Memo to Any Federal Prosecutor Out there Who Possesses BOTH Jurisdiction AND Balls:
Can we have a criminal grand jury take a look at Halliburton’s “overcharges?” Give Halliburton its day in court. They deserve nothing less. And so do we.

Question No. 2: What does it take for religious non-profits to lose their tax-exempt status for violating its tax-exempt status?

Over the past decade or so I have watched as the Christian Right have walked up to, and then stepped across the line into political advocacy. Now I am a democrat – small “d” – to the bone. I want every American to participate in the political process. But when a tax-exempt religious group does so they are violating the terms of their contract with the nation.

If they want a different tax law for religious political activity then let Congress debate it. But the Christian Right is not about to do that, for two reasons. First, it fears they will lose that vote. And, if the DChristian Right won, it would mean non-Christian tax-exempt groups would jump into the game in opposition to their agendas.

But they don’t have to do anything because, with a Christian-friendly administration in power, they already have the best of all possible worlds. They can aggressively push their evangelical Christian agenda in the political arena without worry that this administration will yank their tax-exempt status.

How sure are they? Pretty damn sure. Just feels the cocky surety in a story in today’s Washington Post:

"To fundamentalist Christians....the fight to teach God's role in creation is becoming the essential front in America's culture war. The issue is on the agenda at every meeting of pastors he attends. If evolution's boosters can be forced to back down, he said, the Christian right's agenda will advance…."If you believe God created that baby, it makes it a whole lot harder to get rid of that baby ....If you can cause enough doubt on evolution, liberalism will die."

The story goes on to explain how the Christian Right is launching a nationwide push to force public schools to give so-called “Creation Science” equal billing with the teaching of evolution. And they are not limiting themselves to just shouting down secular school boards either. These Christian soldiers are marching right across the political barrier:

“From offices overlooking Puget Sound, Meyer is waging a careful campaign to change the way Americans think about the natural world. The Discovery Institute devotes about 85 percent of its budget to funding scientists, with other money going to public action campaigns.”

So, why aren’t these groups under IRS investigation for violating their tax-exempt status? If they want to play in the political arena they should have their assets taxed. If they want to keep their tax-exempt status they can do so by simply keeping their teachings where the law intended, in church.

But don’t expect either Republicans or Democrats in Congress to do anything about this trend. Republicans are happy to see their superficial “moral agenda” on the march, not because they are moral but because polls show that churchgoers tend to vote Republican. So for the GOP the Christian Right is a stealth-recruiting device.

Democrats are terrified by the whole faith-based phenomena. They quake in fear that anything they say against the Christian Right will only result in them being accused by these proselytizing little
energizer bunnies of being secular godless heathens.

While the Christian Right is complaining about how schools are not teaching the whole story on evolution, maybe the rest of us should insist they also teach the full story about just how the Puritans ended up camping in mud huts in the New World.

In grammar school we were taught that the Puritans came the New World because they were being “persecuted,” in Europe. Well, yeah, sorta. But there’s two sides that story. Europeans chased the Puritans out when -- as the Brits like to put it – they got tired of those sanctimonious, goodie two-shoes “getting up everyone’s nose” about everything all the time.”

Now they are getting up our noses – and getting tax breaks to boot.

Update: A reader's brilliant suggestion:

Perhaps it is time for those who do not believe the biblical story of creation to start saying that if real science, such as evolution, must come with a warning label then so too should every bible. I suggest something like this:

"WARNING: This book contains information about "God" or "Jesus". There is no scientific proof of the existence of a "Supreme Being," nor any scientific proof of the possibility of a "virgin" birth, nor has any historical evidence ever been found that proves any person identified as Jesus Christ was the son of a supernatural being. Such statements made in this book are only theories."

Thanks to "P.H."

No comments: