International Writers Magazine: Comment- Reality Check
CASH IN ON TRAGEDY Part I & 2
Report Uncovers Corporate Lunacy in the Wake of
J. King is a colleague, a friend, and a fine freelance investigative
journalist who has gone deep inside many nasty corners of society,
business, and politics for the Village Voice among other
publications. In 2003, the New York Press Association awarded
her first place for investigative reporting on the nuclear industry
and in 2005 she placed first in the NYPA news category for "The
New Agent Orange," an investigative article about nine
soldiers who returned from Iraq and are now suing the government
because they believe they were knowingly exposed to Depleted Uranium.
Her new work, completed
just last month for CorpWatch, (http://www.corpwatch.org)
a decade-old nonprofit monitor of all-things-corporate online, is called
"Big, Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering On The American Gulf Coast",
a tirelessly researched and frightening insight into the rapacious milieu
of scavenger business practices that inevitably follows the type of
historic disaster that was Hurricane Katrina.
Now, one year removed from the litany of mistakes and tragedies that
have rendered the gulf coast a watery graveyard, we find its reconstruction
to be less than ethical, and in most cases, downright deplorable. I
figure it's high time Ms. King was given a proper voice at Hackwriters.
jc: How did you initially get involved with this story?
RJK: I frequently write about Indian Point nuclear power plants, which
a company called Entergy Corp. owns, and they're headquartered in New
Orleans, so I figured chances are there's a story there. CorpWatch asked
me to write a feature about Entergy, which, consequently, declared bankruptcy
in the wake of Katrina, and has asked for a $718 million Community Development
Block Grant so taxpayers and ratepayers can bail them out. There's also
an Entergy subsidiary in Mississippi that's asking for a similar bail
out. Between the two of them it is a billion and half dollar bail out
to shelter the corporation from the cost. As I was gathering the information
for the Entergy piece, CorpWatch asked if I would write the whole report.
So for six months I did hardcore investigative research on the contract
procurement process, which involved scouring through all the records
of contracts of prime contractors and government agencies, and I found
the numbers to be very convoluted and unclear, but in the process I
interviewed a lot of people who were beyond the focus of the scope of
the report. And so my hope was to use the report as a platform to segue
into some of the deeper social issues involved.
jc: When you began the report, were you already assuming that there
was likely to be some cloudy areas of where the relief money was coming
from and how it would be spent, or even a fertile ground for corporate
RJK: Going in I knew this was the most pervasive disaster that had ever
taken place on American soil. And I knew that some of the corporations
that were notoriously profiting off the Iraq War were involved. I also
knew that it was cheaper to do domestic disaster than foreign conflict,
but I did not know going in what the specific ramifications were going
to be and I did not go in assuming malfeasance was an issue as much
as ineptitude - you have to keep in mind that FEMA was gutted in the
90's, and it has continued to be gutted, and as the Department of Homeland
Security grows in the number and worth of contracts it gives out, personnel
is being cut back. What I didn't except to find, but came away with,
is this feeling that the "bumbling bureaucrat" image that
used to pervade our thinking on these things has been replaced with
a "fox in the henhouse" image. Corporations are far savvier
than the governments they manipulate and the politicians they enrich.
For example, on 9/7/05, a week after Katrina, President Bush suspended
the Davis-Bacon Act, which protects workers' wages. Two months of controversy
followed. He reinstated it, but not retroactively, so all of the contracts
that were given out during that time were exempt form the Davis-Bacon
Act, which resulted in a lot of workers not being paid or being paid
slave wages. Then there is the contracting pyramid, wherein corporations
benefit greatly from undocumented workers performing the labor at the
bottom, because each successive subcontractor is only responsible for
the layer below them. So, as a prime contractor, if I subcontract the
work to you and you subcontract the work to someone else, and so on,
I am not ultimately responsible for what the last subcontractor who
hires the workers chooses to do, and whether they pay them...or not.
Some of what I learned is shocking, and largely unreported. The two
largest Chinese construction companies, Beijing Construction Engineering
Company Unlimited and Beijing Urban International Company, have made
a proposal to the city of D'Iberville, Mississippi through Gulfco Construction,
which is actively trying to procure visas for thousands of Chinese laborers
so they can work cheaply, and with their own materials, to rebuild vast
swaths of the coast. Who is going to own those areas when they're done?
jc: So the cloudy numbers add up to hidden profits for those insidious
enough to exploit the chaos?
RJK: Exactly. Prime contractors like AshBritt received $500 million,
or $23 per cubic yard, to remove debris, according to an investigation
conducted by NBC. At the bottom of their pyramid the company hired C
& B Enterprise, which was paid nine dollars per cubic yard. That
company hired Amlee Transportation, which they paid eight dollars a
cubic yard, and they turned around and hired Chris Hessler Inc. for
seven dollars a cubic yard, who then paid a debris hauler from NJ, who
was paid three dollars per cubic yard, which is less than the cost of
actually doing the work. So AshBritt gets paid $23 a cubic yard for
nothing more than subcontracting.
jc: I have to say this does not shock me.
RJK: AshBritt was listed in the Small Business Data Base as both a minority-owned
and woman-owned company in order to tap into the federal regulation
for set-asides, which stipulates that a portion of the contracts go
to businesses owned by people who are categorized thusly (the same applies
to other special groups, such veterans or physically disabled individuals).
AshBritt's owner, Randall Perkins, listed his wife, Cuban-born Saily
Perkins, as the company's president. However, I found a list of 2004
campaign contributors compiled by the federal election commission that
listed her occupation as homemaker. Perkins later claimed it was a clerical
jc: These "business practices", while being sneaky and rotten,
are pretty much expected as shenanigans as usual. The question must
be then, is all of this unethical behavior technically illegal?
RJK: It's not necessarily illegal, but it clearly demonstrates the degree
to which laws are set up to favor corporations. At a certain point you
have to say it's not a matter of politics, or anything other than the
obvious fact that the greater good is not being served. I am not prepared
to completely blame corporations for that -- they're playing a game.
It's called capitalism. I understand that. But if the system isn't working,
this is how empires crumble. In the history of the world, I'm not sure
there's ever been a civilization that has recognized its own demise
in time to do anything productive to avoid the calamity.
Taxpayers need to know that the Army Corps of Engineers,
Bechtel and Halliburton, among others, are using the same contract
vehicles in the Gulf Coast as they did in Afghanistan and Iraq. They
need to know that there are indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity
open-ended contingency contracts being used on the Gulf Coast to squeeze
out local companies, and cost-plus contracts that allow them to collect
a profit on everything they spend, which really gives them an incentive
to overspend. The report lays out the astronomical charges in detail.
The American people need to read it.
jc: After all this research and investigation, what is your final assessment
of these repeated money-grabs? Will they eventually bleed taxpayers
and/or the federal government dry and consequently stall the rebuilding
of the Gulf Coast or New Orleans specifically?
RJK: Corporate law requires that corporations put profit above everything
else. People need to keep that in mind. The law is subject to the people.
If people don't like their taxes to skyrocket and their money to be
squandered they must act. It's not just that it's expensive to get things
done, we're throwing billions of dollars at things that are not getting
done it's wasteful, it's disgusting, and how can we really expect
the rest of the world to believe we're interested in preserving their
respective cultures, if we're willing to decimate our own?
I wonder, in the absence of the minority voices, whose
master plan to rebuild will be followed. The Louisiana Recovery Authority
is coming up with a master plan, but in whose image? What are the values
being used? It's very unclear. It is one of the most precious regions
in this country for its cultural diversity. You can't rebuild what was
already there, but you can value the history. I think the single most
important characteristic of the rebuilding effort needs to be a creative
approach to synthesizing the past to build a viable future.
jc: Ironically, I watched a documentary on the rich and mysterious history
of New Orleans only a few weeks before the devastation, and it was one
of the first things I thought of, how much of it will be washed away
RJK: When the early French settlers came to New Orleans, they almost
perished from the heat, and so they brought in slaves from Ghana, because
the climates are so similar, and the slaves wove into the wrought-iron
gates of the city a symbol called the Sankofa, which still stands today.
It is a heart with spirals on the inside and the outside and it means
which Bob Marley immortalized in his wonderful, "No Woman/No
Cry"; "In this great future, you can't forget your past."
You can't rebuild unless you take the past into account. I believe the
image of the Sankofa should stand as the pervasive symbol of the entire
rebuilding effort of New Orleans.
jc: But will it ever be rebuilt -- physically, culturally, or symbolically?
RJK: The future of the city is uncertain, but I question the wisdom
of rebuilding it in an area where the levees haven't been improved.
Climatologists are predicting increased ferocity in weather patterns
in the near future. So rebuilding in this climate has to be undertaken
with the utmost caution.
jc: You're talking planning, wisdom and compassion, so my humble guess
is it will never be rebuilt.
RJK: Well, will it be rebuilt to my utopian vision? No. But it will
be rebuilt to someone's vision, and as such I think people need to keep
a sharp focus on this process. We've been given an unprecedented opportunity
here to look at our values, and the manner in which this rebuilding
process is accomplished says something about the lives of every American.
So people can hash out their ideas of American values until they're
red, white, blue in the face, but if they do not take a step back and
realize this is the defining gesture of our lifetime, how we rebuild
the Gulf Coast, then there is the risk it can be inevitably turned into
a Mardi Gras theme park.
Really, what it comes down to is there's something different
about that place, and if we lose it, it will be a huge victory for homogenization.
jc: Besides the public, or those who go to the Corpwatch web site, who
is going to see this report?
RJK: The 20,000-word report is available with photographs online, in
PDF format, and it's also available as a pamphlet, the size of a magazine,
which has been disseminated to most major media, and I believe it will
be given to all congressional representatives. We are hoping to do a
book, because, to my knowledge, CorpWatch is the only not-for-profit
organization that has trailed Homeland Security's spending since its
inception. CorpWatch has written reports on spending in Afghanistan,
Iraq, an alternative Halliburton report, and now this. All of it can
be viewed on their site.
For more on the report and Rita J. King's continued investigative journalism,
please visit: http://www.ritajking.com/
© Jame Campion Sept 25th 2006
Orleans Update: Sept 25th The Superdome reopens:
Paid for with $115 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency,
$15 million from the NFL, $13 million in state funds and $41 million
from refinancing of the Superdome bonds, with $25 million for operating
the building, the Superdome was remodeled in a record nine months due
to an executive order by the governor expediting the construction process.
Source: The Shreveport Times
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