Molly Ivins

Our Man in Halliburton

The Securities and Exchange Commission is now investigating Halliburton–the company formerly run by Vice President Dick Cheney–for accounting irregularities. What took so long?

Dick Cheney’s record at Halliburton is one of the most under-covered stories of the past three years. When you consider all the time and ink spent on Whitewater, the neglect of the Cheney-Halliburton story is unfathomable.

The proximate cause of the SEC investigation is an “aggressive accounting practice” at Halliburton approved by the accounting firm Arthur Andersen–a little matter of counting revenue that had not yet been received, $100 million worth. The New York Times reports two former executives of Dresser Industries, which merged with Halliburton in 1998, say Halliburton used the accounting sham to cover up its losses. Dresser may have thought it got a bad deal in that merger because of that $100 million “anticipation” on the credit line, but the deal turned out to be much more sour for Halliburton.

Cheney bought himself a former Dresser subsidiary facing 292,000 claims for asbestos-related health problems. He said at the time the merger was “one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in” and predicted it would benefit Halliburton’s customers, employees, and shareholders. The first thing that happened was Halliburton eliminated 10,000 jobs. (It was always amusing to hear Cheney on the campaign trail in 2000 claiming he had been out in the private sector “creating jobs.”)

According to executives at Halliburton, Cheney knew about the asbestos liability before the merger and considered the risk. Because of the liability, Halliburton’s stock has fallen from over $60 to under $20. In January, the company had to deny rumors it was going into bankruptcy. In other words, Cheney pretty well ruined the business. Of course, what the company wants to do now is have Congress pass a new law limiting asbestos liability.

Even more interesting is Halliburton’s governmental record under Cheney. In an August 2000 report, the Center for Public Integrity noted that Cheney had said publicly the United States should lift restrictions on American corporations in countries listed by the government as sponsoring terrorism. Hey, that was then, this is now.

Despite repeatedly claiming his company would not do business with Iraq–he was defense secretary during the Persian Gulf War–Halliburton racked up $23.8 million in sales to Iraq in ’98 and ’99. It did so by using two European subsidiaries, so Halliburton was not directly violating the sanctions against Iraq. Hey, it was business.

And striking another blow for freedom from government interference, Cheney led Halliburton into the top ranks of corporate welfare hogs, benefiting from almost $2 billion in taxpayer-insured loans from the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corp. In the five years before Cheney joined the company, it got a measly $100 million in government loans. Cheney also specialized in getting government contracts for the firm. During his five years as CEO, Halliburton got $2.3 billion in contracts, compared to only $1.2 billion in the five years before he took over.

Most of the government work was done by Halliburton subsidiary Brown & Root, the construction firm, thus reinstating a fine old Texas tradition. Brown & Root was Lyndon Johnson’s major money source: It was to LBJ what Enron was to George W.

This brings to mind a famous story from the Kennedy-Johnson campaign in 1960 relished by Texans. It’s after the election, and the Democrats win. Kennedy and Johnson are sittin’ in the Oval Office the first day, and the phone rings. It’s the Pope of Rome (Texans used to specify “of Rome,” lest you should confuse him with some other pope) on the phone. He says, “John, my boy, the Vatican roof is leaking something fierce, we were hopin’ y’all might fix it for us.”

“Of course, Mr. Pope, sir. Just let me check with my vice president. Lyndon, the Pope’s on the phone and wants to know if we can fix the Vatican roof for him.”

“That’s fine with me,” says Johnson. “Just make sure Brown & Root gets the contract.”

Nice to see tradition reassert itself.

Molly Ivins is a nationally syndicated columnist. Her book with Louis Dubose, Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, is out in paperback.

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Published at 12:00 am CST