Sunday, October 12, 2008

The missile defense shield

This NYT article gives us a rare glimpse into some of the ways contractors, politicians and lobbyists skim money from taxpayer coffers by making the pentagon cough up for programs the military doesn't even want. In this particular case, the ruse used the missile defense program to shield their graft.

Insider’s Projects Drained Missile-Defense Millions
Michael Cantrell, an engineer at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command headquarters in Huntsville, Ala., along with his deputy, Doug Ennis, had lined up millions of dollars from Congress for defense companies. Now, Mr. Cantrell decided, it was time to take a cut.

“The contractors are making a killing,” Mr. Cantrell recalled thinking at the meeting, in 2000. “The lobbyists are getting their fees, and the contractors and lobbyists are writing out campaign checks to the politicians. Everybody is making money here — except us.”

Within months, Mr. Cantrell began getting personal checks from contractors and later returned to the airport with Mr. Ennis to pick up a briefcase stuffed with $75,000. The two men eventually collected more than $1.6 million in kickbacks, through 2007

But what has drawn little scrutiny are his activities leading up to it. Thanks to important allies in Congress, he extracted nearly $350 million for projects the Pentagon did not want, wasting taxpayer money on what would become dead-end ventures.

Mr. Cantrell often bypassed his bosses and broke department rules to make his case on Capitol Hill. He enlisted contractors to pitch projects that would keep the dollars flowing and paid lobbyists to ease them through. He cultivated lawmakers, who were eager to send money back home or to favored contractors and did not ask many questions. And when he ran into trouble, he could count on his powerful friends for protection from Pentagon officials who provided little oversight and were afraid of alienating lawmakers.

Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican, for example, chewed out Pentagon officials who opposed a missile range Mr. Cantrell and his contractor allies were seeking to build in Alaska, prompting them to back off, while a staffer for former Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, intervened when the Pentagon threatened to discipline Mr. Cantrell for lobbying, a banned activity for civil servants.

“I could go over to the Hill and put pressure on people above me and get something done,” Mr. Cantrell explained about his success in Washington. “With the Army, as long as the senator is not calling over and complaining, everything is O.K. And the senator will not call over and complain unless the contractor you’re working with does not get his money. So you just have to keep the players happy and it works.”

“What they did may have been a scandal,” said Walter E. Braswell, Mr. Ennis’s lawyer, referring to the actions of his client and Mr. Cantrell. “But even more grotesque is the way defense procurement has disintegrated into an incestuous relationship between the military, politicians and contractors.”

If you're interested by this excerpt, there's plenty more; please click the link above and read the whole article. It goes on for several "pages", naming senators and others, and includes this bit of character color about "Joe Six-Pack" Cantrell":
Mr. Cantrell and his deputy, Mr. Ennis, visited Kodiak Island on the afternoon of the inaugural test launching. [With the aid of Alaskan interests and Sen. Ted Stevens, the article indicates, Cantrell managed to get a military launch site built in Alaska, against military needs and wishes. Even Cantrell said it was a boondoggle.]

The two men, armed with a cooler filled with Miller Lite beer, watched the launching from a trailer, emerging just in time to see the missile burn an orange streak into the sky. They had hidden out to avoid any local newspaper reporters who might discover that Mr. Cantrell’s missile parts — the justification for millions of dollars in spending — were not even being tested. “There is no way we can explain this,” Mr. Cantrell remembered telling Mr. Ennis.

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