Junior’s Fantastic Con

The Great Iraq Swindle: How Bush Allowed an Army of For-Profit Contractors to Invade the U.S. Treasury
–From Issue 1034
Posted Aug 23, 2007 8:51 AM

How is it done? How do you screw the taxpayer for millions, get away with it and then ride off into the sunset with one middle finger extended, the other wrapped around a chilled martini? Ask Earnest O. Robbins — he knows all about being a successful contractor in Iraq.

You start off as a well-connected bureaucrat: in this case, as an Air Force civil engineer, a post from which Robbins was responsible for overseeing 70,000 servicemen and contractors, with an annual budget of $8 billion. You serve with distinction for thirty-four years, becoming such a military all-star that the Air Force frequently sends you to the Hill to testify before Congress — until one day in the summer of 2003, when you retire to take a job as an executive for Parsons, a private construction company looking to do work in Iraq.

Now you can finally move out of your dull government housing on Bolling Air Force Base and get your wife that dream home you’ve been promising her all these years. The place on Park Street in Dunn Loring, Virginia, looks pretty good — four bedrooms, fireplace, garage, 2,900 square feet, a nice starter home in a high-end neighborhood full of spooks, think-tankers and ex-apparatchiks moved on to the nest-egg phase of their faceless careers. On October 20th, 2003, you close the deal for $775,000 and start living that private-sector good life.

A few months later, in March 2004, your company magically wins a contract from the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to design and build the Baghdad Police College, a facility that’s supposed to house and train at least 4,000 police recruits. But two years and $72 million later, you deliver not a functioning police academy but one of the great engineering clusterfucks of all time, a practically useless pile of rubble so badly constructed that its walls and ceilings are literally caked in shit and piss, a result of subpar plumbing in the upper floors.

You’ve done such a terrible job, in fact, that when auditors from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction visit the college in the summer of 2006, their report sounds like something out of one of the Saw movies: “We witnessed a light fixture so full of diluted urine and feces that it would not operate,” they write, adding that “the urine was so pervasive that it had permanently stained the ceiling tiles” and that “during our visit, a substance dripped from the ceiling onto an assessment team member’s shirt.” The final report helpfully includes a photo of a sloppy brown splotch on the outstretched arm of the unlucky auditor.

When Congress gets wind of the fias­co, a few members on the House Oversight Committee demand a hearing. To placate them, your company decides to send you to the Hill — after all, you’re a former Air Force major general who used to oversee this kind of contracting operation for the government. So you take your twenty-minute ride in from the suburbs, sit down before the learned gentlemen of the committee and promptly get asked by an irritatingly eager Maryland congressman named Chris Van Hollen how you managed to spend $72 million on a pile of shit.

You blink. Fuck if you know. “I have some conjecture, but that’s all it would be” is your deadpan answer.

The room twitters in amazement. It’s hard not to applaud the balls of a man who walks into Congress short $72 million in taxpayer money and offers to guess where it all might have gone.

Next thing you know, the congressman is asking you about your company’s compensation. Touchy subject — you’ve got a “cost-plus” contract, which means you’re guaranteed a base-line profit of three percent of your total costs on the deal. The more you spend, the more you make — and you certainly spent a hell of a lot. But before this milk-faced congressman can even think about suggesting that you give these millions back, you’ve got to cut him off. “So you won’t voluntarily look at this,” Van Hollen is mumbling, “and say, given what has happened in this project . . . “

“No, sir, I will not,” you snap.

“. . . ‘We will return the profits.’ . . .”

“No, sir, I will not,” you repeat.

Your testimony over, you wait out the rest of the hearing, go home, take a bath in one of your four bathrooms, jump into bed with the little woman. . . . A year later, Iraq is still in flames, and your president’s administration is safely focused on reclaiming $485 million in aid money from a bunch of toothless black survivors of Hurricane Katrina. But the house you bought for $775K is now ­assessed at $929,974, and you’re sure as hell not giving it back to anyone.

“Yeah, I don’t know what I expected him to say,” Van Hollen says now about the way Robbins responded to being asked to give the money back. “It just shows the contempt they have for us, for the taxpayer, for everything.”

Operation Iraqi Freedom, it turns out, was never a war against Saddam ­Hussein’s Iraq. It was an invasion of the federal budget, and no occupying force in history has ever been this efficient. George W. Bush’s war in the Mesopotamian desert was an experiment of sorts, a crude first take at his vision of a fully privatized American government. In Iraq the lines between essential government services and for-profit enterprises have been blurred to the point of absurdity — to the point where wounded soldiers have to pay retail prices for fresh underwear, where modern-day chattel are imported from the Third World at slave wages to peel the potatoes we once assigned to grunts in KP, where private companies are guaranteed huge profits no matter how badly they fuck things up.

And just maybe, reviewing this appalling history of invoicing orgies and million-dollar boondoggles, it’s not so far-fetched to think that this is the way someone up there would like things run all over — not just in Iraq but in Iowa, too, with the state police working for Corrections Corporation of America, and DHL with the contract to deliver every Christmas card. And why not? What the Bush administration has created in Iraq is a sort of paradise of perverted capitalism, where revenues are forcibly extracted from the customer by the state, and obscene profits are handed out not by the market but by an unaccountable government bureauc­racy. This is the triumphant culmination of two centuries of flawed white-people thinking, a preposterous mix of authoritarian socialism and laissez-faire profit­eering, with all the worst aspects of both ideologies rolled up into one pointless, supremely idiotic military adventure — American men and women dying by the thousands, so that Karl Marx and Adam Smith can blow each other in a Middle Eastern glory hole.

It was an awful idea, perhaps the worst America has ever tried on foreign soil. But if you were in on it, it was great work while it lasted.

Since time immemorial, the distribution of government largesse had followed a staid, paper-laden procedure in which the federal government would post the details of a contract in periodicals like Commerce Business Daily or, more ­recently, on the FedBizOpps Web site. Competitive bids were solicited and contracts were awarded in accordance with the labyrinthine print of the U.S. Code, a straightforward system that worked well enough before the Bush years that, as one lawyer puts it, you could “count the number of cases of criminal fraud on the fingers of one hand.”

There were exceptions to the rule, of course — emergencies that required immediate awards, contracts where there was only one available source of materials or labor, classified deals that involved national security. What no one knew at the beginning of the war was that the Bush administration had essentially decided to treat the entire Iraqi theater as an exception to the rules. All you had to do was get to Iraq and the game was on.

But getting there wasn’t easy. To travel to Iraq, would-be contractors needed permission from the Bush administration, which was far from blind in its appraisal of applicants. In a much-ballyhooed example of favoritism, the White House originally installed a clown named Jim O’Beirne at the relevant evaluation desk in the Department of Defense. O’Beirne proved to be a classic Bush villain, a moron’s moron who judged applicants not on their Arabic skills or their relevant expertise but on their Republican bona fides; he sent a twenty-four-year-old who had never worked in finance to manage the reopening of the Iraqi stock exchange, and appointed a recent graduate of an evangelical university for home-schooled kids who had no accounting experience to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget. James K. Haveman, who had served as Michigan’s community-health director under a GOP governor, was put in charge of rehabilitating Iraq’s health-care system and decided that what this war-ravaged, malnourished, sanitation-deficient country most urgently needed was . . . an anti-smoking campaign.

Town-selectmen types like Haveman weren’t the only people who got passes to enter Iraq in the first few years. The administration also greenlighted brash, modern-day forty-niners like Scott Custer and Mike Battles, a pair of ex-Army officers and bottom-rank Republican pols (Battles had run for Congress in Rhode Island and had been a Fox News commentator) who had decided to form a security company called Custer Battles and make it big in Iraq. “Battles knew some people from his congres­sional run, and that’s how they got there,” says Alan Grayson, an attorney who led a whistle-blower lawsuit against the pair for defrauding the government.

Before coming to Iraq, Custer Battles hadn’t done even a million dollars in business. The company’s own Web site brags that Battles had to borrow cab fare from Jordan to Iraq and arrived in Baghdad with less than $500 in his pocket. But he had good timing, arriving just as a security contract for Baghdad International Airport was being “put up” for bid. The company site raves that Custer spent “three sleepless nights” penning an offer that impressed the CPA enough to hand the partners $2 million in cash, which Battles promptly stuffed into a duffel bag and drove to deposit in a Lebanese bank.

Custer Battles had lucked into a sort of Willy Wonka’s paradise for contractors, where a small pool of Republican-friendly businessmen would basically hang around the Green Zone waiting for a contracting agency to come up with a work order. In the early days of the war, the idea of “competition” was a farce, with deals handed out so quickly that there was no possibility of making rational or fairly priced estimates. According to those familiar with the process, contracting agencies would request phony “bids” from several contractors, even though the winner had been picked in advance. “The losers would play ball because they knew that eventually it would be their turn to be the winner,” says Grayson.

To make such deals legal, someone in the military would simply sign a piece of paper invoking an exception. “I know one guy whose business was buying ­weapons on the black market for contractors,” says Pratap Chatterjee, a writer who has spent months in the Mideast researching a forthcoming book on Iraq contracts. “It’s illegal — but he got military people to sign papers allowing him to do it.”

The system not only had the advantage of eliminating red tape in a war zone, it also encouraged the “entrepreneurship” of patriots like Custer and Battles, who went from bumming cab fare to doing $100 million in government contracts practically overnight. And what business they did! The bid that Custer claimed to have spent “three sleepless nights” putting together was later described by Col. Richard Ballard, then the inspector general of the Army, as looking “like something that you and I would write over a bottle of vodka, complete with all the spelling and syntax errors and annexes to be filled in later.” The two simply “presented it the next day and then got awarded about a $15 million contract.”

The deal charged Custer Battles with the responsibility to perform airport ­security for civilian flights. But there were never any civilian flights into Baghdad’s airport during the life of their contract, so the CPA gave them a job managing an airport checkpoint, which they failed miserably. They were also given scads of money to buy expensive X-ray equipment and set up an advanced canine bomb-sniffing system, but they never bought the equipment. As for the dog, Ballard reported, “I eventually saw one dog. The dog did not appear to be a certified, trained dog.” When the dog was brought to the checkpoint, he added, it would lie down and “refuse to sniff the vehicles” — as outstanding a metaphor for U.S. contractor performance in Iraq as has yet been produced.

Like most contractors, Custer Battles was on a cost-plus arrangement, which means its profits were guaranteed to rise with its spending. But according to testimony by officials and former employees, the partners also charged the government millions by making out phony invoices to shell companies they controlled. In another stroke of genius, they found a bunch of abandoned Iraqi Airways forklifts on airport property, repainted them to disguise the company markings and billed them to U.S. tax­payers as new equipment. Every time they scratched their asses, they earned; there was so much money around for contractors, officials literally used $100,000 wads of cash as toys. “Yes — $100 bills in plastic wrap,” Frank Willis, a former CPA official, acknowledged in Senate testimony about Custer Battles. “We played football with the plastic-wrapped bricks for a little while.”

The Custer Battles show only ended when the pair left a spreadsheet behind after a meeting with CPA officials — a spreadsheet that scrupulously detailed the pair’s phony invoicing. “It was the worst case of fraud I’ve ever seen, hands down,” says Grayson. “But it’s also got to be the first instance in history of a defendant leaving behind a spreadsheet full of evidence of the crime.”

But even being the clumsiest war profit­eers of all time was not enough to bring swift justice upon the heads of Mr. Custer and Mr. Battles — and this is where the story of America’s reconstruction effort gets really interesting. The Bush administration not only refused to prosecute the pair — it actually tried to stop a lawsuit filed against the contractors by whistle-blowers hoping to recover the stolen money. The administration argued that Custer Battles could not be found guilty of defrauding the U.S. government because the CPA was not part of the U.S. government. When the lawsuit went forward despite the administration’s objections, Custer and Battles mounted a defense that recalled Nuremberg and Lt. Calley, arguing that they could not be guilty of theft since it was done with the government’s approval.

The jury disagreed, finding Custer Battles guilty of ripping off taxpayers. But the verdict was set aside by T.S. Ellis III, a federal judge who cited the administration’s “the CPA is not us” argument. The very fact that private contractors, aided by the government itself, could evade conviction for what even Ellis, a Reagan-appointed judge, called “significant” evidence of fraud, says everything you need to know about the true nature of the war we are fighting in Iraq. Is it ­really possible to bilk American taxpayers for repainted forklifts stolen from Iraqi Airways and claim that you were just following orders? It is, when your commander in chief is George W. Bush.

Read all of it here.

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