Thursday, February 4, 2010


Things proceed as normal here in the White City, although it is perhaps more of a gray these days. A good scrubbing could really make these wall shine. Maybe some new white wash. A little blue paint here and there. If one could only redirect some of that oil money out of various private Swiss accounts...

I've been at the National Library, where I was warmly received by all but the new guy - doesn't he know that I have a special relationship with the library and don't need a card or justification for being there or an escort to the seats? I mean, really, asking for identification and permission to use the archives? Good thing my old buddies were hanging out and saw me at the door, haggling to get it. But the new security and I made up, I bought him a coffee at the little cafe, and he now waves me through like the good ol' days. Ah Algiers, where there's little a friendly demeanor, a couple of cigarettes, and the implicit threat of predator drone strikes for casual misunderstandings can't get you.

But the press is all in a tizzy right now, as the number of scandals continues to mount. I won't go into all the sordid details of Algeria's loss to Egypt in the semi-finals of the Africa's Cup tournament - I'll only say that the generalized Algerian loathing for the referee of that match seems to be justified, as the African Football association is investigating him on charges of match fixing. Try talking to a stranger about something other than football, you'll get nowhere unless you bring up... of the other huge scandals rocking the elite here in Algeria: that of the new highway, where it seems that not only were contractors buying influence and winning contracts by giving gifts to the people in charge (something us Americans can relate to), and also the slightly larger scandal of Sonatrach, the national energy conglomerate (mostly oil and natural gas, but also now water desalinization plants and a number of other industries - they are well diversified). It seems that Sonatrach, the 11th largest oil company in the world and the largest in Africa, has been operating largely under the table as concerns contracts for everything from oil exploration to the construction of swimming pools. This is not surprising coming from the oil industry - the most corrupt industry on the planet? - but it is surprising that the press in Algeria has been going after the scandal so vigorously. We'll see if the coverage and popular discontent translate into anything like accountability or justice - few are holding out hopes: the oil industry essentially holds Algeria hostage, as the entire economy depends upon Sonatrach, so they largely dictate their terms. It is a national company, however, all the top brass are implicated, and there have already been new people appointed to leadership positions, so maybe there will be some kind of change. Probably not, though.

Sonatrach Scandal Fun for Americans can be found in the fact that one of the companies most implicated in the corruption is Brown, Root and Condor, a venture of Brown and Root company, which we all remember as a subsidiary of Halliburton, and part of Kellogg, Brown and Root. As we all remember, there are all kinds of scandals revolving around the BR label having to do with the Iraq war, when they won no-bid contracts and overcharged for oil and put in faulty wiring that killed a soldier in his shower.

It is also the company that tried to cover up the fact that a female employee had been gang-raped by her co-workers and then imprisoned in a shipping container. KBR somehow managed to lose the evidence and tried to deny the woman the opportunity to go to court because of the wording of her contract (they said it was "related to her employment" and thus covered by contract that stipulated she could not take them to court. Really). This was the case that led to Franken's amendment to withhold defense contracts from companies that don't allow their employees access to the courts for sexual assault and discrimination. The amendment was opposed by 30 Republican senators (including our buddy John Thune).

So that was the background to KBR and BR. KBR was also involved in a corruption scandal with Sonatrach here in Algeria in 2006, having to do with Natural Gas and price fixing. For their dealing with the oil sector of Sonatrach they dropped the Kellogg (the companies split when they split with Halliburton) and added the Condor, which indicated the Algerian partnership. And they again set about price fixing - exploiting loopholes in Sonatrach contract law, with the participation of the CEO and, allegedly, the Energy Minister who is in charge, along with a bunch of other guys.

In one of my favorite parts about the scandal, there was apparently a "consultant" who worked for a number of government agencies, who seems to have been involved in setting up the corrupt practices to begin with. This guy worked for a number of government agencies in the 1980s, was arrested and went to jail for 10 years (out of a 16 year sentence), and was immediately put in this "consulting" position to a number of agencies when he got out. No one said for sure, but it seems like this guy took the fall for a bunch of people in the government, and was rewarded for his discretion when he got out of the can. Now, he has a son who is the head of a financial services company in Switzerland, the same company that has allegedly been helping to launder the corrupt money into a variety of private Swiss accounts. The "consultant," upon the breaking of the scandal news, immediately fled to Switzerland. There has been no further word on if Algeria will try to extradite him to testify. Isn't it all too fun?

The Sonatrach logo also provides the press with any number of hand dollar-sign-like visual commentaries. Use your imagination.