Cheney's CEO past seen as burden

Vice president still campaigns for GOP, but his corporate past poses risks for party.

Last week, Vice President Dick Cheney was spotted taking an unannounced tour of a Navy submarine off the coast of Florida. A few days later, he made an appearance at a medal ceremony for Korean War veterans in Washington – slipping in and out of the room in five minutes flat, kept from waiting reporters by a hastily drawn blue curtain.

Mr. Cheney has long been one of the Bush administration's more enigmatic figures, wielding great influence, but often behind the scenes. After Sept. 11, he receded further into the background, shuttling between "undisclosed secure locations."

But lately, there may be additional reasons for the vice president's low profile.

With the US Securities and Exchange Commission investigating accounting practices at Cheney's former company, Halliburton, and investors suing over alleged fraud, the vice president's once-celebrated corporate image now seems like a potential liability for President Bush and the GOP.

Although Cheney continues to campaign for Republican candidates across the country – traveling this week to Iowa and North Dakota – he's been greeted at recent events by protesters, and candidates have found themselves peppered with questions about the vice president's business dealings.

So far, polls show that most Americans don't believe Cheney did anything wrong. But as public anger over corporate greed rises, analysts say Cheney's problems may serve to reinforce a damaging stereotype of Republicans as tied to big business. And with the president facing scrutiny of his own over past stock sales and business practices, many are speculating that Cheney may be dropped from the ticket in 2004.

"This is a guy whose résumé is the résumé of the wealthy Republican businessman," says Paul Light, an expert on government at the Brookings Institution. "Dick Cheney is the vice president as fat cat. And the more the public focuses on the economy, the more Cheney becomes a liability for candidates running for reelection and for the president."

At issue in the Halliburton case is a change in accounting practices that the oil-services company made under Cheney's watch as chief executive. Under the new technique, the company began counting money owed by customers on cost overruns as revenue, despite the fact that the money had not yet been collected.

Halliburton says the practice is standard in the industry, but a lawsuit filed by the watchdog group Judicial Watch charges that the company failed to notify investors of the change for more than a year, resulting in overvaluation of Halliburton stock.

Democrats have also drawn attention to the $40 million Cheney made from selling his stock options, shortly before Halliburton's stock price began to slide. And while most have been careful not to attack the vice president personally, they have been calling on him to address the accounting situation publicly and release any relevant Halliburton documents.

"Questions will be raised, and that's why I think it's important that they release the information and move on," says Rep. Nita Lowey, chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "I wouldn't want to travel around the country having that over my head."

In some ways, it's been a surprising turn of events for a man who was initially brought onto the ticket to provide a reassuring counterweight to the less-experienced George W. Bush.

Not only does Cheney now face questions of possible wrongdoing, he's also had his effectiveness as a corporate chief executive cast into doubt. His decision while at Halliburton to acquire another company, Dresser Industries, has proved to be a serious miscalculation, as liability costs from asbestos lawsuits that were under way against Dresser have soared.

Mr. Light says Cheney's trajectory as vice president has been quite unusual. Typically vice presidents expand their influence over the course of an administration, he says. Cheney started with an unusual degree of power – running the Bush transition and recruiting the cabinet and staff – and then watched his role grow smaller as Bush has gained more credibility and authority in the eyes of the public.

"I'd describe him as the vice president in reverse," Light says. "He has outlived his usefulness to the administration in some ways."

The White House, not surprisingly, disputes this notion. Press secretary Ari Fleischer recently told reporters that Cheney "continues to be a powerful asset, not only for the country but for the president." Indeed, Cheney remains a prominent shaper of the administration's foreign policy and its war on terrorism.

Likewise, Cheney's office disputes the notion that he's been hiding from the press. His spokeswoman notes that he has held a number of public events in recent weeks, and says it would be inappropriate for him to discuss an ongoing SEC investigation with the media.

Republicans say Cheney remains a welcome asset on the campaign trail. He has continued to raise money at a rapid pace, attending 44 candidate fundraisers since January, with at least 16 more scheduled before November.

Still, the controversy has given rise to new speculation that Cheney may step down at the end of the term. Many analysts had already viewed such a move as likely, both because of Cheney's diagnosed health problems and because he has repeatedly said he has no ambition to become president himself.

While it's highly unusual for a president to replace his running mate, Cheney has indirectly witnessed such a move before – he served as chief of staff to President Ford, who dropped Vice President Nelson Rockefeller from the ticket.

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