The damage done 

If they did the crime, they should do the time

There seems to be some general cognitive dissonance these days on who is doing the greatest damage to our state and nation. While some would like us to believe it is a disheveled 66-year-old man recently dragged out of a 6-by-8-foot hole in the ground, the evidence suggests otherwise.

It’s convenient, to say the least, that the capture of Saddam Hussein came just in time to blow Halliburton’s overcharge scandal off the front pages. In case it disappeared before you even noticed it was there, the story was based on the Army’s own audits that showed Halliburton, the company that Dick Cheney led for years prior to being ensconced as Bush’s vice-president, has racked up an estimated $61 million in overcharges for the gasoline and other fuels they are providing under their multi-billion dollar “no bid” contract in Iraq.

Of course Halliburton says none of this is their fault and denies any sort of overcharge. But consider this: Saudi Arabia is, as Cheney himself once said, “floating on a sea of oil.” Its immediate neighbor, Iraq, is itself sitting on what is estimated to be the world’s second largest oil deposits. Yet Halliburton is providing gasoline to Bush’s Iraq War machine at a stunning $2.64 a gallon—nearly twice what local Iraqis charge to import it—and, get this, blaming the Kuwaitis who are selling it to them for the obvious price gouging.

When this rip-off of the American taxpayers by Vice-President Cheney’s former company was brought to the attention of President Bush, he did what any self-respecting Republican Texas oil-man would do when he catches another oil-man with both hands in the National Treasury: He said Halliburton would be expected to give back the overcharged money. No crime, no punishment, no cancelled contracts, no nothing. Just “give back the money.”

Now let’s just say you or I ripped off the U.S. government for $61 million—what do you think might happen? Would the president simply say he expected you to give it back and everything would be okey-dokey? No way. You’d be busted, thrown in jail, fined and sent to prison in chains for a helluva lot less than $61 million. But then again, you aren’t Halliburton and Dick Cheney isn’t your ex-CEO, is he?

Meanwhile, as pictures of the bedraggled Saddam dominate the front pages, Halliburton receives another $222 million in no-bid contracts. Because Congress required bids to tap into the newly appropriated $18 billion in Iraq reconstruction funds, Halliburton is getting its hundreds of millions from another source that doesn’t require bids—the Development Fund for Iraq. For their perfidy they are lavishly rewarded, not punished.

When corporations get caught designing SUVs that gulp fuel, emit climate-destroying pollutants, and roll like balls, the Bush administration and the Republican Congress reward them by implementing monstrous tax breaks for buying the behemoths. Or let’s say they manufacture cigarettes, which kill hundreds of thousands of people every year; or manufacture breast implants that implode; or rip off mutual fund investors; or manipulate power prices that drive prosperous states to the edge of bankruptcy. What do they get from those who make such a big deal out of “keeping America safe”? A slap on the wrist—and the very worst that can happen is they may have to “pay the money back.”

The record on this is clear—way too clear. Enron’s Ken Lay is not in prison. Neither is Montana Power Company’s Bob Gannon. As for Dick Cheney, he, like Saddam Hussein, is in an “undisclosed location,” which we can only suspect is reserved for people who have no qualms about the deaths of others in the achievement of their own personal power and wealth.

Too radical a comparison? Hardly. Just think of what the new pollution rules will mean to hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans. Asthma is already rampant in virtually all urban populations, especially black Americans, among whom one in four children are now afflicted. Or take the new mercury rules. A known neurotoxin and source of the infamous Minimata deformations, mercury gets everyone, but it preys on infants and the unborn.

Montana will be getting plenty of additional mercury emissions from the new, un-needed, coal-fired power plants proposed by get-rich-at-any-cost Repubs like Martz, Burns, and Rehberg. We’re already near the top of the nation in birth-defect causing dioxin emissions from the same source—coal-fired power plants. Yet here they are, telling us it is in our best interests to poison ourselves, destroy our water and air, consume our resources, and leave our children a scorched and bankrupt future.

Poisoning the commons and bankrupting a nation, by any civilized standard, is considered a crime—and those responsible for such crimes should be sent to prison. In fact, that’s what we intend to do, if not worse, to Saddam Hussein for doing precisely the same thing—killing people and stealing the national treasury. But that is not what will happen to Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, Ken Lay, Montana’s own Bob Gannon, or the hundreds of other polluters, cheaters, liars and thieves running rampant in the upper class of American politics and business.

What good news there is comes in the Supreme Court’s recent decision to take the case of the White House’s stubborn refusal to turn over records of who actually “collaborated” on the secretive Bush-Cheney Energy Policy that calls for more drilling, burning, global warming, and citizen-killing pollution. Maybe, just maybe, they will be forced to turn over the truth about who’s running America these days.

Then again, maybe not. The courts and the tide of public opinion move very slowly. In these times, with these people, and their total lack of morality about damaging public health or stealing public funds, by the time the law or public opinion kicks in it may well be too late, and the damage will be long done.

When not lobbying the Montana Legislature, George Ochenski is rattling the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Missoula Independent.

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