Targeting no-bid deals
Critics are taking a hard look at several rich US contracts to rebuild war-damaged Iraq.
When Susan Collins was just a staffer in the United States Senate, she used to worry about fat government contracts being awarded in secret. Now Collins is a US Senator - and she can finally do something about it.Skip to next paragraph
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Senator Collins is drawing a bead on contracts in Iraq, where the US has begun pouring in billions of dollars to repair war damage and rebuild the country. There are charges in the press that no-bid contracts are squandering taxpayer funds.
"A tremendous amount of money will be spent on contracts to rebuild Iraq," says the soft-spoken Maine senator, a leading GOP moderate. She wants Washington to avoid even the appearance of cronyism or war profiteering in these deals. "We have an obligation to make sure that money is not being wasted," Collins says.
Yet some key Iraq contracts already were bid secretly, or on a sole-source basis, to companies with strong ties to the Bush administration. These included a $1.39 billion contract to a subsidiary of Halliburton, an energy giant formerly chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Another $680 million contract for Iraq's power grid, water system, and airport facilities went to Bechtel Group Inc., after a secret bidding process. Together, the six companies invited to bid on the Bechtel contract contributed $3.6 million to federal election campaigns, two-thirds to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Democrats call it favoritism, collusion, and even war profiteering.
"These suspect contracts with Halliburton and other companies raise questions about the awarding of contracts to friends of the administration," says Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois. "Wasn't there someone in the room who said, 'This just doesn't look right.'?"
It's that appearance of wrongdoing that most concerns Collins. In the heat of war, there may be reasons that contracts for fighting oil fires or rebuilding water systems should move quickly - or go to industry giants, she says. Still, anything less than open competition also carries a risk: the integrity of the process, she adds.
Such issues have been a nearly lifelong concern for Collins - one of the rare lawmakers who can do the dog work of a tough investigation herself. As staff director for the government management subcommittee from 1979 to 1987, she led an investigation that found "excessive reliance" on sole-source contracting in Washington. The committee produced a bill that required more competitive bidding, but the law left a loophole: No one needs to account to Congress when they claim one of the seven exceptions in that law, including one for national security.
"The problem is there is no oversight to see that these exceptions are used appropriately," she says. As chairman of the committee she once worked for, Collins wants those loopholes closed. Her "sunshine rule," cosponsored with Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon, was approved by the Senate as an amendment to President Bush's $87 billion request for Iraq.