As Iraq becomes more stable, it means a huge emerging market for U.S. firms that want to do business there. Some companies are finding the road to Baghdad is a lot easier if you hire an expert with friends in high places in Washington.
FOR MONTHS, Winton Blount IV has been in and out of Baghdad, trying to land contracts for his small construction company to help rebuild Iraq.
The Alabama businessman is furious he can’t even get a meeting with U.S. officials who control major contracts — administrator Paul Bremer and his team. “Not having access is incredibly frustrating,” Blount says. “Our government — your government — are making huge investments in this country, and we’re paying the bill. And not having access to bid in it, you know, I want to get through the front door and then it’s up to me. It’s up to my skills and the company that I build on whether we get the business. I’m not asking for privileges other than to walk through the front door.”
Yet, outside Washington, a company set up only in May — Nour USA — is already in the door. This summer, Nour hired the lobbying company run by former Secretary of Defense William Cohen and soon afterwards a joint venture Nour set up with another company won a contract worth up to 80 million over two years.
A Nour official said Cohen’s firm introduced company officials to “the appropriate parties” but absolutely did not influence awarding of the contract.
Making those introductions has become a growth industry in Washington, as powerful lobbyists of both parties cash in by helping firms find business in Iraq. All involved say it’s entirely legal and ethical. But critics say it looks bad.
According to Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause: “Unfortunately, it could look to the rest of the world like Washington insiders are engaging in war profiteering. I think it raises concerns about insider connections and about the very reasons why we went to war.”
The lineup of participants is impressive.
Former senior Bush adviser Joe Allbaugh and his partners set up a new company, New Bridge Strategies, which boasts, “No other firm has the skills and experience to be effective ... in the U.S. and on the ground in Iraq.”
Retired Army four-star Gen. Anthony Zinni has been hired by a law firm to help clients get business in Iraq.
Former House Speaker Bob Livingston and former U.S. Rep. Toby Moffett are working for a British firm that has already landed a big contract.
Can Moffett pick up the phone and get Jerry Bremer’s team in Baghdad? “I can’t, but my partner can, my partner Bob Livingstone can. Yeah. Sure,” Moffett said.
But Moffett insists he merely opens doors and help clients find Iraqi partners — that deals get sealed only if the clients can deliver.
What about some who would look at this and say, “This looks bad, it looks like influence-peddling”? Moffett added: “Well, you know, there is, there is, something called influence in this town. And I, I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I think this is very positive influence. I don’t think there’s anything peddling about it.”
Which is of little consolation to Blount, who’s doing some small jobs while he fights to get an equal shot at the big contracts being funded with his tax dollars.
Lisa Myers is NBC News’ senior investigative correspondent. Aram Roston is an investigative producer for NBC News.