What’s the going rate for getting a former vice president off the hook in a major criminal case that involves charges of government corruption and raises concerns about violent wrongdoing and even murder?
If you’re Dick Cheney, it’s roughly $250 million.
That’s the amount that Halliburton and its former subsidiary KBR Inc. are reported, by Nigerian officials and international observers, to have paid to get the government of the African country to drop bribery charges against the former corporate CEO and other Halliburton employees and operatives.
Top Nigerian lawyers and newspapers are objecting, and rightly so.
The charges against Cheney and his colleagues go far beyond the usual corporate corruption.
I’ve been following them for the better part of a decade.
In the biography I wrote about then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney—Dick: The Man Who Is President, published in 2004 by New Press—I devoted a good deal of space to the former Halliburton CEO’s business engagements in Nigeria.
The section on the dirty dealings in that country by Halliburton during the time when Cheney served as that company’s CEO in the 1990s, argued that: “One of the ugliest stories of Halliburton’s globe-trotting comes out of Nigeria, the oil and gas–rich West African country where the brutal dictatorship of Sani Abacha garnered a good deal of attention for jailing and executing environmentalists—including playwright Ken Saro-Wiwa—who were displeased by its willingness to allow the government’s international oil industry partners to dislocate communities and despoil vast stretches of the countryside. Abacha looked like someone with whom Halliburton could do business. The price that Halliburton and its partners in an international consortium had to pay was high—they are alleged to have paid a $180 million bribe to the Abacha government—but it was a pittance compared with the potential payout. The liquefied natural gas plant they planned to build was valued at as much as $6 billion. Things went swimmingly until the Abacha dictatorship began to crumble and details of its dealings with companies such as Halliburton leaked out.”
By early 2004, in the midst of Cheney’s tenure as the most powerful vice president in American history, French investigators were talking about calling the former CEO to testify regarding his alleged awareness of wrongdoing in Nigeria.
Around the same time, the new government of Nigeria opened an inquiry.
Things move slowly when it comes to corporate crime investigations.
But the Nigerian inquiry finally reached a critical stage this year—for Cheney and for the global quest for corporate accountability.
"We are filing charges against Cheney," Femi Babafemi, a spokesperson for Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), announced this fall.
Godwin Obla, prosecuting counsel for the commission, announced in late November that Nigerian officials would bring significant charges against Cheney and officials from five foreign companies (including Halliburton) in relation to the bribery scandal.
Business Week, which reported that: “An arrest warrant for Cheney ‘will be issued and transmitted through Interpol,” the world’s biggest international police organization…”
That was no idle threat.
At the time of the announcement, Nigeria had already arrested roughly two dozen officials with Halliburton and its partner companies—Technip SA, Europe’s second-largest oilfield- services provider; Eni SpA, Italy’s biggest oil company; and Saipem Construction Co., a unit of Eni—in connection with alleged illegal payments to Nigerian officials, according to Business Week.
But Cheney and his compatriots did not appear to be interested in clearing their names in a court of law.
After weeks of behind-the-scenes negotiating by Halliburton representatives with the Nigerians—a process that reportedly saw former President George H.W, Bush and former Secretary of State James Baker make calls on Cheney’s behalf—the charges against Cheney have been dropped.
Why? Did new evidence of Cheney’s innocence come to light?
According to the Associated Press, "Nigeria’s anti-corruption watchdog, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, said the charges were dropped on Friday after Halliburton agreed to pay fines up to $250 million over allegations it paid millions of dollars in bribe to Nigerian officials."
The company acknowledges it has agreed to pay $35 million to the Nigerian government over "allegations of improper payments to government officials in Nigeria."
But it appears that the even bigger payout will take the form of a deal to free up Nigerian money that had been locked away in Swiss bank accounts.
The revelation that Halliburton and KBR paid tens of millions of dollars directly, and hundreds of millions indirectly, to get Cheney and his associates off the hook, has not set well with Nigerians who have campaigned for transparency and accountability.
Calling for a rethink of the agreement, Osuagwu Ugochukwu, the principal partner Nigeria’s St. Francis Xavier Solicitors firm, argued that Cheney and his compatriots received special treatment that was not in accordance with proper legal procedures. "We know as a point of law that once a criminal charge has been filed in a competent court, issue of penalty of fine is for the courts to impose and not parties," argued the prominent lawyer. "Hence, we are shocked to hear that EFCC imposed a fine on an accused person. We also know as a point of law that criminal matters cannot be settled out of court as in civil matters in Nigeria."
Declaring that deal raises "troubling questions about business ethics and the government’s anti-corruption posture," the Daily Sun newspaper editorial declared that: "We therefore condemn in strong terms this kind of under the table settlement. (This) is making Nigeria look like a country where money can buy justice. More importantly, the Halliburton case questions the seriousness of government in holding corrupt foreign firms and their officials accountable for their action, while on the other hand encouraging and patronizing companies that have not only confessed corrupt practices, but are not known to respect wholesome business ethics."
"Only a painstaking trial and possible conviction, if found guilty, would have forced Halliburton to change its corrupt ways of doing business in Nigeria," concluded the Sun.
That’s the proper stance.
It’s unlikely that Nigeria will take it.
But does a payment in Nigeria mean that Cheney will not be held to account anywhere?
That’s an important question for US officials.
The United States government began an investigation into Halliburton’s dealings in Nigeria around the same time that the Nigerians started looking into the matter. In February, 2009, Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) agreed to the largest corruption settlement ever paid by a US company under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA)—$579 million. This year, Business Week reports, one of the Halliburton partner companies, Technip, “took a charge of 245 million euros ($342 million) related to its stake in (Nigerian projects) and discussed ‘resolution of all potential claims’ with the US Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Paris-based company said on Feb. 12.
But are massive payments sufficient accountability for a scandal that involved not just bribery of foreign officials but partnership with a dictatorship that allegedly stopped at nothing—even murder—to deliver for its foreign paymasters?
This is a question Nigerian officials have wrestled with. The resolution they have accepted is an unsatisfying one.
But the process opens new questions for US investigators and prosecutors—not to mention members of Congress—to consider. Indeed, we would all do well to consider whether the standards of accountability are met with massive payments. Or whether, perhaps, a more serious inquiry is required.