Having your souffle and eating it too

Today's new breed of public servants prefers to cash in while still stalking the halls of power.

Published March 26, 2003 8:31PM (EST)

For years now, political reformers have been railing against the unseemly -- and rampant -- practice of former government officials pouring through Washington's golden revolving door only to return a short time later as well-paid lobbyists, auctioning off their access and influence.

Well, compared to the latest trend, it turns out those were the good old days. Today's new breed of public servants prefers to cash in while still stalking the halls of power and still deeply involved in the highest levels of creating public policy.

Talk about eating your cake and having it too.

On second thought, better make that "eating your soufflé," because Richard Perle -- a close advisor to Donald Rumsfeld whose side obsession has been to open a chain of soufflé restaurants -- has taken this double-dipping scam to a whole new level.

As chairman of the Pentagon's influential Defense Policy Board -- a position that is unpaid but still subject to government ethics rules -- Perle has been the frothing pit bull of the Bush administration's dogs of war. At the same time, he is the managing partner of Trireme Partners, a firm that specializes in homeland security and defense, and serves on the board of directors of Autonomy, a software company whose clients include the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security.

Perle's latest deal finds him on the payroll of Global Crossing. The bankrupt telecommunications company is struggling to win government approval for its proposed sale to Asian investors. The Defense Department and the FBI are both opposed to the $250 million deal since it would place Global's fiber-optic network -- which is used by the U.S. government -- under the control of Hutchison Whampoa, a Hong Kong firm with close ties to those freedom-loving folks in Beijing.

Enter Richard Perle. Global is hoping he can convince his good buddies in the Defense Department to put their national security concerns aside and let the dicey deal go through. And Perle is clearly confident that he can deliver: In a highly unusual arrangement for a Washington gun-for-hire, he's agreed to make $600,000 of his $725,000 fee contingent on his bringing home the bacon.

I guess he figures: Hey, I convinced the president to toss aside 200 years of historical precedent and launch a preemptive war despite the trepidation of the majority of the world, how hard can it be to persuade a few government bureaucrats -- including my old pal Rummy -- to look the other way while I do an end-run around the public interest and bank a quick 725 grand? After all, you know what they say about casting Perles before swine.

This sleazy state of affairs has caught the eye -- and turned the stomach -- of Rep. John Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, who has called on the Defense Department to investigate whether Perle's business dealings constitute a conflict of interest.

During his years in the Reagan administration, Perle was dubbed the Prince of Darkness because of his hard-line stance on national security issues. But I suppose when you toss nearly three-quarters of a million dollars into the mix, the gloomy Prince is more than happy to click on his halogen nightlight and refashion his hard line into a squiggle.

Adding insult to injury is the fact that Perle's windfall is coming from the coffers of a disgraced company that was among the worst of the corporate crooks. He's lining his pockets at the expense of the 10,000 laid-off Global employees who saw $32 million in severance pay wiped out -- and the shareholders who lost $57 billion in equity -- when the company declared bankruptcy.

The hubris is unfathomable. In legal documents drafted in connection with the proposed Global sale, Perle couldn't have been clearer about what the telecom company would be buying with its fat fee. "As chairman of the Defense Policy Board," declared Perle in an affidavit, "I have a unique perspective on and intimate knowledge of the national defense and security issues" likely to be raised by the governmental review of the sale. Knowledge, he pointedly pointed out, "that is not and could not be available" to the other lobbyists trying to get the deal approved.

In other words: "I've got Rumsfeld's ear and access to all sorts of super-top secret information that none of these other jokers on your payroll do. I know more. I can do more. So I'm worth more." And he had the unmitigated chutzpah to put this all in writing. And sign it. I guess this is what the Bush administration means by "transparency." And, to Perle's credit, the whole thing is pretty transparent.

But, of course, when reporters began sniffing around the deal, Perle's power plumage shriveled up faster than George in the "shrinkage" episode of "Seinfeld."

First he tried the classic Bush administration Plan A -- the simple, 180 degree lie. He just told reporters that he never signed the statement. That didn't work, so onto Plan B -- claiming ignorance, admitting that he had signed it but insisting he hadn't read it. Finally, no doubt realizing this all sounded a bit too much like "the dog ate my affidavit," Perle declared that none of it mattered anyway, since his position on the DPB actually, now that you mention it, had "nothing to do" with the Global deal -- so how could he possibly be using his public office for private gain?

So when there's money to be had, Perle's position at the Defense Policy Board affords him "a unique perspective" on advising Global Crossing, but when ethical questions are raised, his Defense Policy Board post has "nothing to do" with his work for the telecom company.

And this is the guy our president is putting his trust in when it comes to waging war on Iraq?

Perle's abuse of the public interest is in a class by itself, but he is far from the only one in Washington shaping public policy from the inside while skirting the ethics rules designed to keep people from cashing in on their positions of power.

Among the most prominent of the double-dippers are Karen Hughes, who continues to serve as one of the president's most trusted advisors while pulling in $15,000 a month as a "consultant" to the Republican National Committee; RNC Chairman Marc Racicot, a double-dip pioneer, who famously decided to forgo tradition after being elected party chairman in 2002 and hang on to his day job as a high-powered corporate lobbyist for companies such as Enron; and Haley Barbour, the former head of the RNC, who has unabashedly decided to continue working as a lobbyist for clients such as Citigroup, DaimlerChrysler, Lockheed Martin, and Nestlé at the same time he is running for governor of Mississippi.

It seems that after failing in their attempts to privatize Social Security, Republicans have decided to privatize public service.

By Arianna Huffington

Arianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist, the co-host of the National Public Radio program "Left, Right, and Center," and the author of 10 books. Her latest is "Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America."

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