Blood in oil and bribery

Last month, big oil, mining and gas, hiding behind The United States Chamber of Commerce, the American Petroleum Institute and the Independent Petroleum Association of America, filed a lawsuit against the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), demanding the right to bribe foreign countries and return to the days, 35 years ago, when more than 400 United States corporations bribed foreign officials to secure land and business contracts.

The lawsuit claims that a bipartisan provision of the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that requires full disclosure of payments made to foreign governments violates corporate First Amendment rights. This action also seeks to dismantle the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), enacted in response to the flood of briberies. Lead attorney for the oil industry is Eugene Scalia, son of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. If the suit reaches the Supreme Court, I would hope Papa Scalia would recuse himself for obvious conflicts of interest.

And so the infamous Citizens United decision, granting First Amendment protection to Corporate America, raises its ominous head again, as it just did in our recent election, and will now be used to cripple anti-corruption laws that undermine Corporate America’s ability to secretly line the corrupt pockets of power for profit. We must never forget that the conservative Citizens United organization, funded primarily by Karl Rove’s Crossroads America, aimed their cry for free speech at presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, because they were certain Republican presidential candidate John McCain could defeat a young Democratic senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, in the 2008 presidential election. Oops, I guess that didn’t work—twice!

Ian Gary of Oxfam, an organization dedicated to ending global poverty, advancing women’s rights and creating self-sustaining programs in developing worldwide communities, responded to the lawsuit by saying, “We are greatly disappointed that the oil industry is trying to use the courts to bully the SEC and push for secrecy in their payments to governments.” He went on to add, “We call on BP [British Petroleum], Exxon, Chevron and Shell, who are hiding behind industry associations to do their dirty work while espousing transparency rhetoric, to disassociate themselves from the lawsuit.” There was no response to the call for disassociation by Gary from these oil giants.

So what’s the big deal? How different is this form of bribery from the powerful lobbyists who promote their clients’ interests in Washington? One is open and the other covert. When presented through this lens, it doesn’t appear there is much difference. After all, we’re speaking of foreign countries, some of which lack legal and regulatory institutions and infrastructures required to protect the interests of their citizens and their country’s natural resources. So why should we, the United States of America and The Foreign Internal Defense (FID), a global organization against terrorism, assume the role of big brother and protect the interests of those who cannot fend for themselves? Are we to become global citizens in search of justice or should we bow to an open market, unobstructed enterprise, and capitalism? Why not exploit these opportunities and make the foreign landscape bend to the whims of U.S. businesses? Somehow I recall this sociopolitical economic dogma espoused in our recent Presidential Election.

Attorney Eugene Scalia will argue that the First Amendment prohibits government from restricting independent political expenditures by corporations and that bribing foreign officials is simply a legitimate form of political speech, as are the powerful lobbyists that line the halls of Washington and the wealthy donor-financed Super PACs. I’m certain Scalia will be much more eloquent, but his argument is logically based on the Citizens United decision, which legally equated corporations with people. If Citizens United gives such latitude to political free speech maybe foreign interests can join the lawsuit, by submitting an amicus curiae brief, and we can have foreign officials take the witness stand and testify that they have no objection to being bribed. Who knows, they may even receive support from oil lobbyists and nonprofits, like the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity, a neo-conservative fundraising organization. And before we know it, we can finance abusive governments that violate basic human rights and govern with fear and military force. Does Iraq’s Saddam Hussein or Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi ring a bell? Each of these dictators used oil bribes to build their military forces and terrorized and murder the citizens of their nation. But they are foreigners and what happens to them is not a concern for Citizens United; that is, united for the sole purpose of exploiting and influencing sociopolitical opportunities for profit.

Ironically, what the Chamber of Commerce and their comrades hope to achieve is what Middle America detests most: financing special interests that seek to gain advantage over those who play by the rules, rules that require an open, competitive bid transparent on every level to society and the world. But who are we fooling? We need not look across the Pacific to encounter corruption. As a result of the Iraq War, Halliburton, a company once led by Vice President Dick Cheney, received over $7 billion in Iraqi oil and infrastructure contracts that never saw an open bid; a company that paid settlements of $791 million for 10 instances of federal contractor misconduct. As recently as Dec. 2010, Halliburton paid $35 million to Nigeria to settle a bribery case involving liquefied natural gas, an effort that included the participation of Vice President Cheney. But let’s not pick on Halliburton or Cheney. After all, history will tell their story. Instead, we can turn a critical eye to Goldman Sachs-backed Cobalt International Energy, who partnered with an Angolan company seeking the rights to drill in an offshore oilfield. Global Witness, an investigative group based in the United Kingdom, reported that $550 million in “social payments” were provided to the state-owned oil company Sonangol by Cobalt, BP and an Angolan-Hong Kong interest group.

In the months and years ahead, Republican political pundits and right-wing economic gurus will attack laws and rules created to protect citizens and bring equity to the competitive world of capitalism. They will scream for free markets and demand that rules and laws be repealed to stimulate our economy, but there is more at stake than profit or jobs. There are economic consequences to our actions that may serve as a foundation for power and the violation of human rights and dignity. America’s middle class got a tiny taste of what power in the wrong hands can do, but Americans have a vote—something many citizens of oil-rich countries do not have.

So when the matter of corporate free speech in foreign countries is exploited by the Chamber of Commerce and their allies, big oil and gas, remember that we may be sending our sons and daughters into combat in an oil-rich country, like Iraq, so that companies like Halliburton can profit. We must connect the dots and understand the global implications of these actions that come into our homes and sit at our kitchen table to reside forever in the memories of those who have lost loved ones to wars advanced by greed. We must never forget that there is blood in diamonds, blood in oil, and blood in greed. But it is not shed by the profiteers.

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