How Dick Cheney Ruined My International Anti-Corruption Day

December 10th, 2010

Today is International Anti-Corruption Day, established by the United Nations, as a day of awareness for the issue.  As the UN describes it: “Attitudes on corruption are changing. As recently as ten years ago, corruption was only whispered about. Today there are signs of growing intolerance toward corruption and more and more politicians and chief executives are being tried and convicted.”

The United States has proven itself the world’s trailblazer on matters of anti-corruption.  The U.S. flagship anti-corruption legislation is the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which makes it unlawful for persons and entities to “make payments to foreign government officials to assist in obtaining or retaining business,” and it has received praise from the OECD for its comprehensiveness.  Yet on this day, it is clear that our own politicians and chief executives could use some reminding of the importance of this issue and its impact on development.

Let’s start with the recent actions of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which were outlined in a compelling blog by Raymond Baker in today’s Huffington Post.  Baker’s article is detailed and persuasive, so I won’t summarize it entirely and instead recommend you read it.  One of the more shocking points Baker makes, though, is that the Chamber has lobbied to give “subsidiaries of multinational companies a loose rein” with the FCPA so that the actions of a foreign subsidiary should not expose the parent company to liability.  As Baker points out, in a world where much of global business is done by subsidiaries, “gutting the FCPA in this way would subject the United States to ridicule.”

But it’s not just the Chamber of Commerce that has subjected America to ridicule on International Anti-Corruption Day.  The honor for this holiday’s most humiliating bribery indictment by a U.S. citizen belongs to none other than former Vice President Richard Bruce “Dick” Cheney.  As most Americans know Cheney has not been without his fair share of scandals.  In 2005, Cheney’s credibility came under fire when his Chief of Staff, Lewis “Scooter” Libby, leaked the name and covert status of CIA agent Valerie Plame to reporters.  And of course, no one can forget the time Dick Cheney shot his hunting buddy in the face.

Cheney’s most infamous transgression is perhaps the scandal involving his former employer: Halliburton, the world’s second largest oilfield services corporation.  Cheney served as the company’s CEO for five years between 1995 and 2000.  Prior to holding this post, he was America’s Secretary of Defense, where he awarded contracts to Halliburton that resulted in millions in revenue.  And when he left his job as CEO to become America’s Vice President, Halliburton was awarded hundreds of millions more in non-competitive contracts.

Now the pair has hit the news again, this time because Nigeria’s anti-graft agency, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), has filed charges against Cheney and others over a bribery scandal involving Halliburton.   The charges emerged from an EFCC investigation into $6 billion in contracts Halliburton won with Nigeria LNG Ltd., whose largest shareholder is the state-owned petroleum company.  According to the investigation, Halliburton employees paid nearly $200 million in bribes to Nigerian government officials to win these lucrative deals.

To add insult to injury, Halliburton is also a prominent member of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  That’s right, the powerful organization that is lobbying to weaken the FCPA, which Halliburton clearly violated.

As this case shows, the corruption enigma is not only about handing an official a fistful of cash or a suitcase of cash for that matter.  Corruption can exist in the shadows, too, as the politician with too much power who gives no-bid contracts to a company to which he is closely tied.  Or as a business federation, stuffed with powerful corporations, whose members break the law and simultaneously lobby to change it.

So what can we do?  Awareness is critical.  Citizens who remain diligent, aware of the problem, and solid advocates for change, can accomplish more than they think.  Corruption can only exist, even in its most blatant forms, under the mask of secrecy.

Maybe Dick Cheney has ruined all the celebrating I had planned to do on International Anti-Corruption Day. But that’s okay.  There’s always next year.

Correction: This article originally stated that Dick Cheney served as Halliburton’s CEO from 2000-2005.  Dick Cheney actually served as CEO between 1995-2000.  The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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