Op-Ed: 800 Lb war Gorilla hangs over Peoria Trial

Op-Ed: 800 Lb war Gorilla hangs over Peoria Trial
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Op-Ed: 800 Lb war Gorilla hangs over Peoria Trial

Although a Rock Island jury last April deadlocked on the Bush administration’s claim that a former Halliburton subcontractor, Jeff Mazon, inflated a fuel-related contract cost in exchange for a bribe, the Justice Department is trying again to prosecute Mazon – this time in a federal trial in Peoria, which started last week.

Although a Rock Island jury last April deadlocked on the Bush administration’s claim that a former Halliburton subcontractor, Jeff Mazon, inflated a fuel-related contract cost in exchange for a bribe, the Justice Department is trying again to prosecute Mazon – this time in a federal trial in Peoria, which started last week.

Significant as war-related corruption cases are, the trial misses what some consider a far more serious problem. Is corruption limited only to one mid-level manager? Or does it reflect a bigger problem involving a culture of corruption amid what could be called an unjust war?

American un-prosecuted war criminals, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, owner of Halliburton at the U.S. Pentagon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

American un-prosecuted war criminals, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, owner of Halliburton at the U.S. Pentagon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite these concerns, the retrial will avoid addressing whether a corporation like Halliburton should be held accountable for the actions of its employees.

Mazon had everything going against him in the first trial. Yet the jury deadlocked. Indeed, in the first trial earlier this year, U.S. District Court Judge Joe B. McDade banned Mazon from exploring the larger issues of the Iraq war or of Halliburton’s history of alleged contract corruption and apparent price-gouging. McDade, a central Illinoisan who traveled to Rock Island for the trial, kept the focus tight on Mazon.

But we cannot ignore that Halliburton, Mazon’s main contractor, is also Vice President Dick Cheney’s “former” corporation. So is Bush trying to protect Halliburton and, by extension, Cheney?

The Arab Daily News

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Where the case is prosecuted is important. Rock Island was first chosen because the “LOGCAP III” contract to feed, shelter and support U.S. soldiers, and help restore Iraq’s oil infrastructure is based there. But can a defendant perceived as a “foreigner” – Mazon, who lives in suburban Chicago, is Ecuadorian – who also is accused of taking a bribe from an Arab contractor expect sympathy from a post-Sept. 11 jury in a mostly rural area of Illinois?

In contrast, prosecuting the case in Washington, D.C., instead of Rock Island, would have put a brighter public spotlight on the issue of war-related contract corruption. It would have drawn more media coverage, likely exploring the bigger questions. No national media covered the Rock Island trial. Clearly, the Bush administration doesn’t want the public to ask questions about Halliburton, which has been plagued by allegations of scandal. Why is the company still receiving contracts?

Moving Mazon’s trial to Peoria will bring more attention. But prosecutors again have asked the judge to prohibit Mazon from arguing that he is a “scapegoat” for Halliburton or its subsidiary, KBR; that he was framed by Halliburton; that the government conspired to protect Halliburton; and that Mazon is the victim of a war-related culture of corruption.

Mazon originally was accused of inflating three contracts. During a three-year investigation, the government settled on one contract. He was charged with major fraud against the United States.

But the facts of Mazon’s alleged corruption remain a hurdle to government hopes of quickly closing this case.

Enough jurors apparently sympathized with Mazon’s claim that an alleged bribe was actually a simple computer error involving the conversion of U.S. dollars into Kuwaiti dinars.

For the Bush administration, the Mazon case is as much about politics as it is about corruption. Can the administration deal with corruption without holding the clout-heavy Halliburton accountable?

Some 36 contract managers – many employed by Halliburton or its subsidiaries and sub-contractors – have been convicted of corruption and bribery. One might argue that corruption has become part of the war and Halliburton’s culture.

As for Cheney, it’s not a leap to suspect something more is involved. Cheney was the chief architect of the Iraq war. Barely a year after stepping down as CEO from Halliburton, Cheney was drafting plans to invade Iraq. And Halliburton would be a lead war contractor.

If we must spend more tax dollars to make a foreign currency conversion error look like a bribe, can’t we acknowledge that sitting front and center in the Peoria federal courtroom is an 800-pound gorilla the Bush administration hopes no one will notice?

(Ray Hanania is an award-winning syndicated columnist and radio talk show host based in Chicago. He can be reached at www.ArabWritersGroup.com.)

The Arab Daily News

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The Arab Daily News

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