Halliburton subsidiary KBR got $12 billion worth of exclusive contracts for work in Iraq. But even more shocking is how KBR spent some of the money. Former U.S. Army Corps of Engineers official Bunnatine Greenhouse is blowing the whistle on the Dick Cheney–linked company's profits of war
This time, she was sure, they were going to get her.
Bunnatine Greenhouse had been a huge nuisance since the buildup to the war in Iraq—questioning contracts, writing caveats on them in her spidery script, wanting to know why Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR (formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root) should be thrown billions of dollars of government business while other companies, big and small, were shut out.
And Bunny Greenhouse wasn't that easy to ignore: she was the highest-ranking civilian at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Specifically, she was the officer in charge of ensuring that any work contracted out by the Army Corps to private industry—from help in building bridges and dams and highways to support for wartime troops—was granted in a fair and aboveboard way. For two years, Greenhouse had asked hard questions about why the head of the Corps, to whom she reported directly, kept giving exclusive, non-compete contracts to KBR that now amounted to roughly $10.8 billion. Greenhouse was fearless, and she was blunt. In the Corps's male hierarchy, it probably didn't help that she was a woman—or that she was black.
On October 6, 2004, Greenhouse was summoned by the Corps's deputy commander, Major General Robert Griffin. She knew that the top brass was eager to finalize the Corps's latest contract for KBR, a $75 million extension for troop support in the Balkans. Already it had gone through several drafts, mostly because Greenhouse kept questioning the rationale for giving it to KBR without competitive bidding. What she didn't know was that her superiors had closed ranks against her.
When Greenhouse entered the general's office, he handed her a letter that explained she was being demoted for poor performance—a curious indictment, given that she'd received high performance ratings before the war. The demotion would knock her down to the government rank of GS-15. That was like going from senior vice president in a Fortune 500 company to middle management. She could retire instead with full benefits if she liked, the letter went on to say. She was, after all, 60.
Greenhouse chose a third alternative: she hired a lawyer and began to fight.
All through last year's searing presidential campaign, the mere mention of Halliburton stirred fury and bitterness in the blue states. How, Democrats asked, had the Houston-based oil-and-gas conglomerate won all those deals to provide services to troops in Iraq? What role had Dick Cheney played behind the scenes, given that the vice president had been Halliburton's C.E.O. from 1995 to 2000, walked away from the job with an estimated $35 million, and continues to get six-figure deferred-salary compensation from the company, despite his denials that he does? True, Halliburton's $12.5 billion division KBR had expanded over the years from oil and gas to do lots of government work: about half of its 60,000 employees in 43 countries handle military needs, from building bases to serving food. But other companies—Fluor for one, Parsons for another—service the military, too. Why hadn't they been considered?
Worse, KBR appeared to have mismanaged the work it got. At various hearings of the House Committee on Government Reform last year, ranking minority member Henry Waxman (a Democrat from California) turned livid as he detailed charges of reckless spending, chaos in the distribution of supplies, and profiteering by KBR executives—charges less often refuted than shrugged off.
Waxman had gotten many of his talking points from a plucky group of whistle-blowers: contract staffers and truckdrivers who'd worked for KBR in Iraq. Their view was from the ground, with startling allegations of how KBR operated—and operates still—on a day-to-day basis in the war zone.
Greenhouse, though, is the first to offer that view from a top-down perspective. The picture that emerges when her account is added to the others is of a company much like the law practice in John Grisham's novel The Firm: a rogue operation, with corrupt management, cynically conning the federal government as it rakes in billions of ill-earned taxpayer dollars.