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Halliburton smoke

THEY HAVE had enough of repeated one-sided attacks from the Democratic presidential candidates, and they are fighting back.


Battered by accusations focusing mostly on its contracts in Iraq -- worth $8 billion and climbing -- the politically connected Halliburton company has gone on a charm offensive. Television ads are running in Houston and Washington, and the company's chief executive, Dave Lesar, is telling journalists, as he told the Globe editorial board in a phone interview yesterday, that Halliburton gets a lot of this kind of work "because we're really good at it." But Halliburton's core business is oil field services, and much of its work in Iraq is nation building.

Congress and the Bush administration should redouble their efforts to probe specific allegations, including gross overcharging, as well as the entire procurement process. If the worst that can be said is that Halliburton received enormous noncompetitive contracts because it was the only qualified company, that is alarming enough and needs to be addressed. Dwight Eisenhower, who warned against the military-industrial complex, would wince.

The specific charges are troubling. Halliburton has already reimbursed the government $6.3 million and admitted that two employees, since fired, took kickbacks from a Kuwaiti subcontractor.

Charges that Halliburton vastly inflated the number of meals it was serving to armed forces in Iraq and Kuwait are being investigated by the Pentagon, which has suspended payment of $36 million. The company has also agreed not to bill an additional $140 million until the issue is cleared up.

Another accusation is that a Halliburton subsidiary overcharged the United States $61 million for bringing fuel from Kuwait into Iraq immediately after the war -- some of it at prices substantially higher than American consumers pay. Lesar said yesterday the amount was a fair price and questioned reports that the Pentagon was beginning a criminal investigation into this deal. But other probes are moving forward, as they should. Former Halliburton employees have said the company "routinely overcharged" for its work in Iraq, two congressmen said last week.

The Justice Department is also looking into an accusation that another Halliburton subsidiary was part of a group that paid $180 million in bribes to Nigerian officials to win a contract there starting in 1995 when Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's CEO. Lesar said yesterday that whatever happened in Nigeria was commenced by an independent company that was later bought by Halliburton.

Halliburton, which has made at least $655,333 in political contributions since 1999, 94.7 percent to Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, has political clout. Close scrutiny of its actions will determine whether its charm offensive is successful, or deserves to be.

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