This White House Scandal Finally Tips the Scale


Marie Cocco
This White House Scandal Finally Tips the Scale
Tue Nov 11 23:42:58 2003
64.140.158.175

This White House Scandal Finally Tips the Scale
Marie Cocco

If there's no independent counsel in the forest, does a corrupt tree ever fall?

The question came first to mind not in these days of frenzied speculation over the exposure of a CIA operative by top Bush administration officials. It arose, or should have, in May of 2001.

Dick Cheney, vice president for four months, held a reception for elite Republican donors at the sprawling house that is his taxpayer-owned residence. Word of the event brought snickers from those with a memory. They recalled hot Republican demands for investigation and a blizzard of congressional subpoenas when President Bill Clinton used similar public perks for the care and feeding of political fat-cats.

Cheney's identical transgression did not elicit an identical response.

"I'm sure it's being done in an appropriate way, or Dick Cheney wouldn't do it," Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), then the Senate majority leader, said.

That is how it's been. No ethical horror is too frightful to have roused official indignation in a town that once demanded three taxpayer-funded probes into the suicide - yes, it was suicide - of Clinton White House lawyer Vince Foster.

Around the time big donors were sipping wine with the vice president, Cheney was chairing meetings of his secret energy task force. That is, he was hearing from lobbyists, many of them elite Republican donors and most with a large financial stake in this or that detail of national energy policy. Cheney has fought, successfully so far, to keep secret the list of those who so generously offered their expertise.

Executives of Enron got six meetings with the Cheney task force. According to an analysis by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the White House energy plan adopted all or most of Enron's recommendations in seven of eight areas in which the now bankrupt and criminally entangled firm made suggestions. Enron-affiliated political committees and employees were among the top donors to the Bush campaign in 2000. Chairman Kenneth Lay was a Bush "Pioneer," who raised $100,000.

No prosecutor looked into this dazzling coincidence. There is no longer a law providing for independent counsels, after Washington exhausted itself with them during the Clinton years. Soon Enron unraveled, victim of its own twisted schemes to defraud investors and bilk ratepayers. It left its employees with empty retirement funds when company stock became worthless.

It so happens that during the time when the Enron schemes were being exposed and the company's executives were cashing out their own stock, Army Secretary Thomas E. White, a former Enron executive himself, placed dozens of calls to officials of the embattled company. Forty-nine occurred between Aug. 14, 2001, the day former CEO Jeffrey Skilling resigned from Enron, and Dec. 3, 2001, the day after Enron filed for bankruptcy. White cashed out his Enron stock for $12.1 million.

Martha Stewart, eat your heart out.

White was forced from office last April, not because of suspicious calls or stock sales. These brought no rebuke. It was because he disagreed with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over a weapons program.

The Enron imbroglio came to light before a subsidiary of Halliburton, a company once headed by the vice president and from which he still receives a generous compensation, won no-bid contracts for rebuilding Iraq. The contracts have no apparent limit and, according to an analysis by Rep. Waxman's staff, could be worth up to $7 billion.

But Halliburton is becoming old news. So is the little-noticed fact that three top officials of the Interior Department are under scrutiny by inspectors general for involvement in matters affecting their former clients in the grazing, mining, oil and gas industries.

But suddenly, now, Washington twitters with the prospect of full-fledged scandal. The CIA called in the Justice Department to probe what apparently was a White House effort to retaliate against a career diplomat for having the audacity to say the president's claims of an Iraqi plot to obtain enriched uranium from Niger had no basis. Vengeance was to come from having journalists reveal the identity of the diplomat's wife, a CIA operative.

The rotten tree finally has gained notice. What took so long?

Marie Cocco is a nationally syndicated columnist and member of Newsday's editorial board. Her e-mail address is cocco@newsday.com

Copyright 2003, Newsday, Inc.
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