Two Kings, The Sequel
Do you remember Three Kings, David Russell's 'screw-loose war picture' starring George Clooney as the American soldier who slips into Iraq during the Gulf War ostensibly to steal Iraqi gold but who winds up saving hundreds of desperate Iraqi citizens? Roger Ebert was favorably impressed:
A political undercurrent bubbles all through the film. A truce has been declared, and Hussein's men have stopped shooting at Americans and fallen back to the secondary assignment of taming unhappy Iraqis who were expecting him to be overthrown. ("Bush told the people to rise up against Saddam. They thought they'd have our support. They didn't. Now they're being slaughtered.") Strange, the irony in Iraqis killing Iraqis while American gold thieves benefit from the confusion.
The movie was pure fiction, of course. But if Ebert thought the irony was 'strange' in that film, what would he make of its real-life sequel? We might title it Two Kings, The Sequel: 'Custer Battles'?
Today's New York Times finally gets around to reporting another depressing tale of the Bush administration's roaring incompetence as it pursues its criminal designs. Erik Eckholm is late to the party, to be sure. He's playing catch-up to The LA Times, a number of blogs, and wire service reporters who first broke the story almost three weeks ago when a qui tam lawsuit was filed by two former employees of one of the most beknighted U.S. contractors in Iraq -- second, perhaps, only to Halliburton.
At the center of this new tale is a company calling itself Custer Battles. (I'm not making this up). The company is owned by Scott Custer and Michael Battles. (Get it? Custer and Battles. Really. I'm not making this up.) Battles was, wouldn't you know, an unsuccessful Republican candidate for Congress two years ago in Rhode Island. (I swear this is true). Blogger Mark Kleiman of Body and Soul also has pegged him as "a Fox news commentator." (So help me, this is true, too.)
Kleiman has a good summary --
Custer Battles seems to have proceeded to steal everything that wasn't nailed down and to pry up most of what was. With a few shell companies to do phony invoicing, it managed to inflate $3 million in costs on a cost-plus contract to $9 million. One estimate of the total fraud reaches $50 million.
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The company hired Nepalese Gurkhas to fill out its limited staff and quickly expanded its presence. It won a contract in August 2003 to provide logistical support for a massive currency exchange in which Iraqis turned in trillions of old dinars for the nation's new currency.
That contract committed the Coalition Provisional Authority to paying for all the company's costs for setting up centers where the exchanges would take place, plus a 25% markup for overhead and profit, according to the Air Force memo signed by Deputy General Counsel Steven A. Shaw.
Custer Battles then purchased trucks, equipment and housing units to carry out the contract. It created a series of "sham companies" registered in the Cayman Islands and Lebanon, the memo said.
The companies were then used to create false invoices making it appear as though they were leasing the trucks and other equipment to Custer Battles. The scheme inflated the 25% markup allowed under the contract, the memo said.
In October 2003, company representatives accidentally left a spreadsheet in a meeting and it was later discovered by CPA employees. The spreadsheet showed that the currency exchange operation had cost the company $3,738,592, but the CPA was billed $9,801,550 — a markup of 162%.
In another case, a Custer Battles employee wrote in a report that a $2.7-million invoice was based on "forged leases, inflated invoices and duplication," the Air Force memo said. In yet another case cited by the memo, Custer Battles billed the government $157,000 to build a helicopter pad that cost $95,000.
Although tardy, Eckholm's account does contribute to the script.
With forged invoices, Mr. Miskovich wrote, Custer Battles billed for providing a security detail for the road delivery from Baghdad to Mosul of prefabricated cabins. The housing was urgently required by teams carrying out the currency exchange.
Not only did the company provide no guards for the trip...but the convoy was also somehow lost for a week, officials in Mosul had to sleep in tents, and the company had to offer a reward to locate the cabins.
Eckholm rather forgivingly characterizes the episode as exemplifying the "fog of post-invasion Iraq." Maybe that's a typo. He must have meant "the fraud of war."
Just like the original Hollywood blockbuster, Two Kings: The Sequel is a tale of unimaginable riches, swarthy-looking exotics, Carribean shell corporations, hilarious hijinks in the desert, a corrupt American television news network, and dramatic tension mounting from the valiant heroics of lower level employees who want to set things right and catch the crooks.
But here's the denouement: When the whistle finally is blown and the cavalry is called, the Bush administration's Justice Department declines to ride to the rescue.
The Bush administration decided not to join the whistleblowers' civil suit alleging fraud against the company, run by a former Republican congressional candidate. The whistleblowers' attorney said a Justice Department lawyer told him the reason was that the alleged victim was the U.S.-financed and led Coalition Provisional Authority, not the U.S. government.
Justice Department spokesman Mark Corallo said the department didn't comment on why it declined to join such suits.
It's unusual for the Justice Department to decline to join a suit that has a load of documents and when criminal prosecution is likely, said Patrick Burns, a spokesman for Taxpayers Against Fraud, a group that monitors citizen suits.
Only a Bushy could come up with the excuse that the CPA was unrelated to the US government.
So, now you have it: Truth not only is stranger than fiction, sometimes it turns fiction on its head. In the original Three Kings, the bad guys quietly slip into Iraq, unexpectedly turn good, give up their treasure, and risk all to save lives. In the Republican sequel, the bad guys openly invade Iraq, promise to save lives, defraud their own country, and wind up stealing millions with the Bush administration's blessings while hundreds of Iraqis die every day.
Sounds like a block buster to me. Maybe Sinclair Broadcasting would like to join Fox News in airing a preview.