Wednesday, March 7

Chairman Waxman Goes Soft on Chronic Post-Katrina Reconstruction Graft

In December, all 5'5" of Democrat Rep. Henry "Bulldog" Waxman bragged to the Associated Press he had "recreated [himself] as an investigator" of corruption during the 12-year (1994-2006) GOP House interregnum. In January he received subpoena power but Katrina had made him legislatively flaccid by February.

A 16-term House veteran, Henry Waxman epitomizes that ordinary Joe who, after years of envisioning a romantic interlude with a internationally famous supermodel, can't (or won't) consummate his desire when that rare opportunity actually befalls him.

Five weeks after November's midterm elections shifted congressional power to the Democrats, the Associate Press was chatting up the party's populist "Eliot Ness" crime fighter. Fresh from winning 71% of the votes in California's 30th Congressional District that includes some of Los Angeles' wealthiest outlying communities,(Beverly Hills, Malibu, etc.), Waxman was in line to chair the House's powerful Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It was Waxman who would rectify his GOP predecessors' abysmal oversight of an executive branch comporting itself like a Viagra-addicted Marquis de Sade on a all- expenses-taxpayer-funded Girls Gone Wild global war bender.

Waxman's O&GR Committee website even champions his own libertine lust for legislatively curbing such profligacy: "As set forth in House Rule X, clause 4, the Committee on Government Reform may, at any time, conduct investigations of any matter regardless of whether another standing committee has jurisdiction over the matter." [emphasis added] The website further notes Waxman in 1998 created "the Special Investigations Division to conduct investigations into issues that are important to members of the Government Reform Committee and other members of Congress."

Indeed, the outgoing Republican O&GR Committee chair who Waxman was replacing believed the Bush White House was in for a rough tumble once his cross-aisle colleague took over in 2007.

"There is just no question that life is going to be different for the administration," said Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia. "Henry is going to be tough. ... And he's been waiting a long time to be able to do this."

According to AP, Waxman "has spent the last six years investigating the White House and its corporate allies, focusing on everything from military contracts to Medicare prices from his perch on the Government Reform Committee." So what would be

Waxman's biggest challenge as he mulls what to probe?

"The most difficult thing will be to pick and choose," he said.

Katrina Breaks Waxman's Picker

All the advance media billing aside, a casual inspection of Chairman Waxman's investigative hearings into "waste, fraud and abuse" since the 110th Congress convened two months ago suggests Beltway Bandits and Heartland accomplices have little to fear over who and what Henry picks to probe.

According to the AP, Waxman's priority as committee chairman would include probing government contracts, especially involving Hurricane Katrina cleanup and related Department of Homeland Security contracts. An October 2006 Associated Press story had "reported instances in which the Katrina debris cleanup involved five layers of subcontractors. The Army Corps of Engineers refused to provide the cost figures specified in the master contracts and denied AP’s request for those figures, made under the Freedom of Information Act."

Of course, there's plenty more graft to go around in the government's post-Katrina reconstruction debacle. A progress report released 28 February by the Institute for Southern Studies reveals congressional oversight is long overdue in curtailing rampant mismanagement and contract fraud sabotaging the Gulf Coast region's rebuilding efforts.

A 31 January 2007 Democracy Now! news broadcast further revealed federal, state and city governments were welcoming only the very well- connected and affluent back to New Orleans while discouraging poorer former residents from returning.

Jamie “Bork” Loughner, a housing activist for uprooted Katrina victims, told Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman that police SWAT teams were forcibly removing residents from structurally sound, livable public housing that Housing and Urban Development (HUD) inexplicably was targeting for demolition.

Moreover, New Orleans law professor and Hurricane Katrina victims' advocate Bill Quigley (quigley@loyno.edu) also cited evidence of a putative racist class war that was redistributing public relief funds earmarked for low-income residents to the city's predominately white business community. Besides revealing efforts by federal and state officials to stop his disclosures to the media, Quigley told Goodman

the tragedy is that they are using the money that Congress gave to the victims of Katrina, and they are what I call like a Robin Hood in reverse. They are stealing the money that should be coming to the low-income community, and instead converting that money and using it for property owners and the developers and the like. And in case of public housing, they're using Katrina tax credits, they're using Katrina rebuilding money in excess of $100 million and additional money to destroy houses that are structurally sound and are actually in better physical shape than almost any of the residential buildings in the city of New Orleans. So they are using money to help Katrina -- that was designated to help Katrina victims, to destroy affordable housing, put money into the pockets of developers and then put up some other housing that they're not going to let low-income people back into.

Loughner and Quigley's startling revelations of unchecked fraud, corruption, graft and intimidation make for must-see TV. You can watch Democracy Now!'s 12-minute online interview with them: 128k stream or 256K stream. Or just read the transcript here.

Question: So how is Chairman Waxman handling all this post-Katrina graft?
Answer: Pretending all's fine--including an impressive pre-2006 election backlog of Katrina fraud (September 2005-August 2006) his investigative staff compiled before he received subpoena power.

Among his pre-election investigations, Waxman found a dubious $236 million Department of Homeland Security contract with Carnival Cruise Line for three ships to provide temporary housing for post-Katrina evacuees. Three weeks after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, Waxman sent a letter (pdf) to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff requesting documentation on the contract that cited taxpayer costs to house a family of five were an exorbitant $20,000 a month, much higher than community-based temporary housing options.

Perhaps it was Florida Governor and Presidential Bro Jeb Bush's role as Carnival Cruise Line's putative deal-maker in negotiating the generous contract that occasioned Chertoff to conclude he could completely blow off Waxman's letter. Similarly, Brother Jeb also blew off Waxman's subsequent 28 February 2006 letter inquiring into the governor's involvement in a deal reeking of quid pro quo payback for Carnival Cruise Line's $65,000 campaign contributions "to the Republican Party of Florida in advance of the 2002 gubernatorial election in which [Gov. Bush was] running for reelection."

But when Chairman Waxman convened hearings 8 February 2007 on Department of Homeland Security contracts, no mention was made his earlier Katrina reconstruction and contract probes. Instead, Waxman et al. "focused on two examples of multi-billion dollar contracts: the Deepwater program to develop new ships for the Coast Guard and the Secure Border Initiative to integrate technology and personnel to defend the nation’s borders."

Chertoff again ignored a 23 January 2007 letter Bulldog sent him requesting documentation of those two sets of contracts be turned over to his committee by 30 January. But since wasn't subpoenaed, he found no motivation in joining the list of witnesses volunteering information to Waxman et al. on the 8th.

Still, following that round of faux-committee hearings, Waxman cynically noted he had introduced "two bills to increase government transparency and encourage the discovery of waste, fraud, and abuse of taxpayer money." What?!

Henry, you've already done that part of your job. Here's a newsflash: "YOU HAVE SUBPOENA POWER. YOU CAN SEND CHERTOFF A DOCUMENT MAKING IT MORE DIFFICULT FOR HIM TO BLOW YOU OFF." But according to a TalkingPointsMemo/Muckraker.com 1 March report, Chairman Waxman may have an apparent dysfunction regarding subpoenas. That may explain why Waxman has yet to issue one.

(Incidentally, the first four witnesses subpoenaed by the 110th Congress last week--four politically dismissed U.S. Assistant Attorneys summonsed by the House Judiciary Committee--requested them so they legally could speak to Congress.)

If there is a legislative equivalent to the virility drug Viagra, it's time Chairman Waxman begin a daily regime. The alternative is that ol' Bulldog becomes the congressional eunuch he currently is impersonating.

Katrina Postscript: Toxic New Orleans Neighborhoods; Bush Puts in Gulf Coast Appearance

Neighborhoods around New Orleans and elsewhere across Louisiana -- many in predominantly minority communities -- are facing toxic threats from dumpsites that have cropped up or expanded in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Environmental advocates detailed the growing problem in a hearing held earlier this week by the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works titled "Moving Forward After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

The problem of construction and demolition ("C&D") debris disposal is enormous in storm-affected areas. In testimony before the committee, Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality Secretary Mike McDaniel reported that Katrina and Rita generated more than 62 million cubic yards of debris -- enough to fill the Louisiana Superdome more than 10 times. And more is on the way: While 12,000 storm-damaged homes have been demolished to date, about 30,000 additional homes are slated for dismantling.--"Post Katrina Dumping Threatens Louisiana Communities," Facing South: Blogging for a Progressive South, 1 March 2007

[On 1 March] President Bush visited the Gulf Coast region for the first time in six months. Bush failed to mention Katrina in his 2007 State of the Union address, despite pledging one year earlier that he would "stay at it until they're back on their feet." Yesterday, he sought to "fight the perception that those whose lives were devastated by the August 2005 storm had fallen off his agenda," telling local residents the "federal government still knows you exist." In Biloxi, MS, Bush acknowledged that "there's a continued frustration with the slowness of federal response at times." Eighteen months after the storm hit, approximately 110,000 Katrina victims still live in trailers or receive rental assistance. "More than half of Orleans Parish's public schools and nearly 70 percent of its child-care centers remain closed while the limited hospital emergency rooms are 'saturated' with patients." Only 17 percent of New Orleans's public schools have reopened. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) plan to "unveil legislation that would pour $250 million into the city's hurricane-ravaged school system over the next five years." The bill would grant financial incentives to teachers and principals to stay in or move to New Orleans.-- Faiz Shakir, Nico Pitney et al., Progress Report “Under the Radar: Bush visits the forgotten victims of Katrina,” Center for American Progress, 2 March 2007

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