Construction and railroad magnate Dennis R. Washington is Montana’s only homegrown billionaire. The Missoula resident also appears to be the city’s only initiate to a cabal of big government contractors whose political donations have been followed by lucrative government contracts as the Bush administration continues to throw billions at the rebuilding effort in Iraq.
Back in March, ABC News reported that Boise-based Washington Group International was one of five companies invited by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to participate in a “secret bidding” process for contracts to help rebuild Iraq. The secret bids made international news, with England’s Sunday Herald reporting, “All the American firms to get Iraqi reconstruction contracts have bankrolled George Bush and the Republican Party, or have direct links to USAID.”
The Herald went on to note that Washington Group International “gave $438,700 to the Republicans,” placing it in the same select group as Halliburton, the company once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.
While it was among these select bidding companies, Washington Group International did not receive a contract from the initial bid, says WGI Vice President for Corporate Communications Jack Herrmann. Since then, the company has secured $135 million in contracts through what Herrmann describes as an “open bidding process” for work in both Iraq and Afghanistan. WGI has extensive experience with government contracts, ranging from dam building to environmental cleanup to weapons destruction in Eastern Europe, according to company literature.
WGI announced on Oct. 3 that it had received a $110 million “task order” from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers “to support ongoing efforts to repair electrical infrastructure in Iraq.” The company also had hoped to win a contract to destroy weapons of mass destruction, if WMDs are ever discovered in Iraq. But WGI—which is currently employed destroying U.S. stocks of chemical weapons—lost the contract to Raytheon.
Washington is the chairman of the board for Washington Group International, Inc. While Washington relinquished his stock in WGI under that company’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2000 (WGI emerged from bankruptcy in early 2002), the reorganization plan, according to a company release, allows Washington to purchase “up to 40 percent of the common stock of the newly reorganized company.” So far, according to WGI spokesperson Katrina Puett, Washington hasn’t exercised that option.
The Missoula-based Washington Corporations is a separate company, explains spokesperson Mike Halligan. Dennis Washington owns that company, Montana Rail Link, Envirocon, Washington Development, Montana Resources and other Montana companies, none of which has anything to do with Iraq.
Between 1999 and 2002, WGI donated $756,231 in soft money and individual contributions to federal candidates, party committees and leadership PACs, according to the Washington D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics.
Those contributions were almost evenly split between the two dominant parties, with Democrats attracting 42 percent of the company’s largesse and Republicans taking in 58 percent.
With Dennis Washington chairing the company’s board, the Washington Defense division of WGI was established in 2001 “to focus on promising markets in the areas of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons destruction,” according to a WGI company profile. Communications VP Herrmann says in 2002 alone, $900 million of the U.S. defense budget went to WGI for defense work, including the development of a system for detecting so-called “dirty bombs.” These devices are crude, low-budget atomic bombs, and just one of the threats concerning the Bush administration post-9/11.
Following the attack on the Trade Towers, in which WGI lost 13 of its staff, Herrmann says the company began to market itself as a homeland security contractor. “We knew there would be a homeland security market that would develop,” says Herrmann.
As for what’s currently happening in Iraq, the company is focused mostly on “infrastructure work.”
In addition to rebuilding the electrical system destroyed during the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s regime, WGI is also busy building facilities at a military base three miles south of Kabul, Afghanistan. This job “marks a return for Washington Group, which built much of that country’s critical infrastructure—including: the Kandahar airport, the country’s first modern highway and a number of dams and other water projects,” according to a company release.
Dennis Washington declined a request by the Independent for an interview, but Herrmann did address the widely reported perception that large campaign contributions help well-connected companies land big government contracts, saying, “That’s part of the competitive market.”
Herrmann affirms that campaign contributions secure access to elected officials, who set policy that affects the company’s ability to do business. In regards to the current policy in Iraq, which is obviously a boon for WGI, Herrmann won’t debate the merits of the president’s efforts in Iraq. “That’s one for the politicians to talk about,” says Herrmann.
But as long as that policy continues to pour billions into the war, the media will continue to scrutinize the companies working for the U.S. government in Iraq. The Wall Street Journal described the current money flow to government contractors as “the largest government reconstruction effort since Americans helped to rebuild Germany and Japan after World War II.” All told, the final price tag for Bush’s invasion, occupation and rebuilding of Iraq hovers somewhere in the jaw-dropping range of $200 billion to as much as half a trillion dollars over the next 10 years. That’s according to an Oct. 7 report titled “Divvying Up the Iraq Pie,” by award-winning investigative reporter Stephen Pizzo.
“America’s Iraq-sticker-shock,” Pizzo writes, “may turn to anger when taxpayers discover the small group of men and companies reaping the benefits of President Bush’s newly found appreciation for nation building. While Vice President Dick Cheney’s company, Halliburton, has attracted most of the press attention for its Iraq-related contracts, Halliburton is hardly the whole story. Halliburton’s share is but a slice of multi-billion-dollar pie being divided up among a brotherhood of unusually well-connected and economically related individuals and entities.”