Cronyism?

Thomas R. Temin

The arcane world of federal contracting has been thrust anew into the spotlight.

A few of the Democratic candidates for president and a group called the Center for Public Integrity are leveling charges that Iraq reconstruction contracts were awarded to companies because of campaign contributions to President Bush.

They are using words like cronyism, abuse and profiteering.

The charges may be partisan, but they are serious. They say one of two things: Either the government's acquisition officials are somehow completely compromised by the dark forces of big corporations, or they are incompetent fools.

If the president or Vice President Cheney, formerly Halliburton Co.'s chairman, are crooks or war profiteers, I guess I would expect them to act with more subtlety than to blatantly steer multibillion-dollar contracts to cronies.

Not that subtlety is a requisite for influencing contracts.

Earlier this month Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) announced a Defense Department-IBM Corp. partnership to buy up to $600 million worth of chips made in IBM's Essex Junction, Vt., plant'a partnership nudged along by Leahy's having inserted the deal into the fiscal 2004 Defense appropriations bill. That deal's the law.

Without having personal knowledge of the Iraq contracts that went to the likes of Halliburton and Bechtel Corp., I cannot comment on the charges, except to say I am somewhat skeptical about them.

Even some Democrats, ranging from former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator Steve Kelman to New York Times columnist David Brooks, have questioned the charges' validity.

Unfortunately, these kinds of allegations have a way of taking on a life of their own.

Now that the field of would-be Bush challengers has spread its accusations, the awarding agencies might have no way of clearing the air other than submitting to audits by the General Accounting Office's inspector general.

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