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[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/content/2004/s1113216.htm]
The World Today - Friday, 21 May , 2004 12:25:55
Reporter: Nick Grimm
ELEANOR HALL: A Queensland company which was one of the first Australian firms to win a contract in post-war Iraq has found itself shut out of the strife-torn country and tangled in a legal brawl with an American multinational accused by its critics of being a war profiteer.
The US company, Halliburton, which is connected to senior members of the Bush administration, cancelled its contract with the Australian catering company, the Morris Corporation.
The Australian company had been responsible for feeding not only US troops in Iraq, but it even prepared that thanksgiving turkey so publicly enjoyed by President George W. Bush.
But now the Morris Corporation has lost its $100 million contract as a result of a dispute with Halliburton, as Nick Grimm reports.
Nick Grimm reports.
NICK GRIMM: In June last year the Queensland-based Morris Corporation signed a deal to provide catering services in Iraq with a subsidiary of the American corporate giant Halliburton.
At the time it was trumpeted as an example of how Australian companies could help with the effort to rebuild Iraq.
Now the General Manager of Morris Corporation, Fiona Berkin, says that deal has come to nothing.
(to Fiona Berkin): So what is the extent of the Morris Corporation's involvement in Iraq at present?
FIONA BERKIN: Currently nil. We did the contract with KBR. We then did another contract with a company called TES, an American company that was a sub-contractor to KBR believe it or not, and I think the contract ran for the six month period and then we finished.
NICK GRIMM: And according to a report in today's Sydney Morning Herald an insider to the deal has claimed a Halliburton employee sought $3 million in kickbacks as part of the deal.
Fiona Berkin again.
FIONA BERKIN: Morris generally provides facilities management services to remote locations, for example - the mining industry, construction industry, and to defence in... internationally.
NICK GRIMM: So suffice it to say the company has specialised somewhat in operating in difficult and hazardous environments?
FIONA BERKIN: Yes, definitely.
NICK GRIMM: So no doubt Iraq has also presented its own difficulties for your company?
FIONA BERKIN: Yes, it certainly has.
NICK GRIMM: The Morris Corporation has provided catering services for the Alice to Darwin rail development, and an oil refinery construction project in Papua New Guinea. But more recently the Morris Corporation scored one of the catering coups of the Coalition's occupation of Iraq.
(archival audio excerpt)
GEORGE BUSH: I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere. Thanks for inviting me to dinner?
(end archival audio excerpt)
NICK GRIMM: The company was responsible for providing thanksgiving dinner to none other than US President George Bush when he made a surprise visit to Baghdad last year, appearing in front of the cameras offering US troops that plastic turkey on a tray.
(archival audio excerpt)
GEORGE BUSH: I bring a message on behalf of America. We thank you for your service. We're proud of you.
(end archival audio excerpt)
NICK GRIMM: But the last time the company itself made headlines was in tragic circumstances when its former owner, Aaron Morris, was killed in Somalia while overseeing its operation there.
Just a short time earlier, in 1995, his father, David Morris, the founder of the company, had been killed there as well.
(archival news report)
REPORTER: David Morris was given a chair to sit on, and he had started to make a speech of thanks, promising to build a well. But then a gunman standing next to him had fired into the air to scatter the crowds, then turned and shot the Queensland-based New Zealander at point black range.
(end archival news report)
NICK GRIMM: The dispute comes just as Halliburton faces scrutiny in the United States over irregularities in its accounting practises, and alleged over-billing for catering services in Iraq.
Two Halliburton employees are also under investigation for alleged involvement in $6 million in kickbacks over contracts to supply the US military with fuel.
Pratap Chatterjee is Managing Editor of the US-based corporate watchdog organisation CorpWatch, and has written extensively about Halliburton.
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: We have had a lot of questions about them, in particular about their overcharging for services, and this ranges from their delivery of oil, gasoline to the military, as well as for their practices in overcharging for food supply and catering to the troops in the field around the country.
NICK GRIMM: Now it should be pointed out that Halliburton is a company that's extremely well connected within the United States, isn't it?
PRATAP CHATTERJEE: Halliburton are very well connected. Their former chief executive officer was Dick Cheney, and what's most interesting, I think, is not simply the fact that he one worked for them and they now are benefiting from the contracts in the war that he basically helped start, but to go much further back, he's the man who started the system of private contracts in the military in the first place.
NICK GRIMM: The World Today sought a response from Halliburton's US headquarters in Houston, Texas but was unsuccessful.
However the company's Chief Executive Dave Lesar did make this statement at an annual shareholders' meeting two days ago.
These were his words:
STATEMENT: We have become the most scrutinised company in America, not because of our performance, but because of politics. It has been a hard year. We do not expect the political pressure or the difficulty of the job to let up in the near future.
Know this - we are proud to serve the military all over the world, including Iraq. Everyone here is committed to do this work until the job is done. We will make sure that soldiers get breakfast, lunch, and dinner, get their laundry done, and receive mail from home, and we will continue to help with the rebuilding in Iraq because that is our job.
ELEANOR HALL: The words of Halliburton's Chief Executive, David Lesar, ending that report by Nick Grimm.