September 26, 2003,
Dick Cheney knows the Democratic long knives are out for him on the subject of Halliburton. So why does he make his critics' job easier?
The opposition party would have you believe the vice president somehow greased the way for his former company to receive huge contracts to rebuild postwar Iraq.
There's no evidence nothing to support that accusation, and plenty to suggest it's wrong.
Halliburton has done big business in Democratic and Republican administrations. Just look at the huge contracts, some of them no-bid, that the company won during the Clinton years. Did Cheney fix those too?
Still, on a side issue the question of whether Cheney maintains ties to Halliburton the Vice President has given his opponents an opening by denying any financial relationship with the company he used to run.
"Since I left Halliburton to become George Bush's vice president, I've severed all my ties with the company, gotten rid of all my financial interests," Cheney said Sept. 14 on NBC's Meet the Press. "I have no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind and haven't had now for over three years."
It was the kind of flat-out, categorical, definitive statement that catches the ear. "He wouldn't have said that without having his government counsel say it's OK to say he had severed all financial ties," noted one Republican lawyer.
But has Cheney really gotten rid of all his financial interests in Halliburton? The vice president's financial statements show that Cheney received $147,579 in deferred compensation from Halliburton in 2001 and $162,392 in 2002. He is scheduled to receive more in 2003 and 2004.
The pay was for work Cheney finished long before. Five years ago, he made a deal with Halliburton in which he would receive part of his 1999 salary over several years, instead of all in one year.
Those payments continued when Cheney entered the vice president's office. But since Cheney is doing nothing for the company now and has no other relationship with Halliburton, his aides argue that he has no ties to the company.
Perhaps, but that's not the way it works in the rest of the executive branch. The deferred-compensation question comes up occasionally when high-ranking executives accept jobs in government. Sometimes, often for tax reasons, those executives have deferred-pay deals with their former employers under which they continue to receive income after joining the government just like Cheney.
That is allowed, but deferred compensation, a specialist with the Office of Government Ethics said, "is still a continuing financial interest. [The official] would be recused from dealing with his prior employer for the duration of that continuing financial interest."
The concern is that if the official's old company ran into financial trouble, he or she might want to help, to make sure the pay keeps coming.
Cheney addressed that issue before becoming vice president by purchasing, with his own money, an insurance policy that protects his deferred compensation. So even if Halliburton goes broke, Cheney would still be paid. Thus, he argues, he has no financial interest in Halliburton's condition.
Although a third party insures Cheney's payments, they are still in fact coming from Halliburton. He's still getting those checks. And even if Cheney is on solid legal ground, common sense would tell most people that if they received six-figure paychecks from a company, they would have financial ties to that company.
So why is Cheney taking the money? Because he earned it, his aides say. But Cheney also had a lot of money coming to him from $7.8 million in Halliburton stock options and in January 2001, just before taking office, he assigned his right to any future profits from those options to charity. He could have done the same with the deferred compensation.
That would involve giving up some cash, but Cheney made $36 million in 2000 and the charity option might have been a relatively inexpensive way to avoid trouble.
Now, however, Cheney's decision to accept deferred compensation allows the Democrats to attack and attack and attack. "The vice president needs to explain how he reconciles the claim that he has 'no financial interest in Halliburton of any kind' with the hundreds of thousands of dollars in deferred salary payments he receives from Halliburton," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in an unfortunately accurate assessment of the situation.
"If you ask everyday Americans if someone has a financial interest in a company that provides them with annual compensation, I am certain the answer would be yes," said New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg in another unfortunately accurate assessment.
Now, it's true that Daschle and Lautenberg and their fellow Democrats would be screaming about Halliburton no matter what Cheney did to distance himself from the company. But Cheney did not have to make their job so easy.
Byron York is also a columnist for The Hill newspaper, in which the column originally appeared.