Norm Coleman and the Australian wheat deal

For those of my friends that like their local, hot of the presses (almost) Norm Coleman fix, here is an article from the Star Tribune, the hometown paper (almost):


Coleman criticized for wheat-scandal silence
He won attention for probing the Iraq oil-for-food program, but he hasn’t tackled the Australian Wheat Board’s role in it.
Rob Hotakainen, Star Tribune
WASHINGTON – Sen. Norm Coleman got international attention last year for taking on United Nations head Kofi Annan and his scandal-plagued oil-for-food program, which let Saddam Hussein enrich himself before the Iraq war.
Now he’s getting notice for something he didn’t do: The Minnesota Republican, chairman of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, was not similarly aggressive in investigating how high-priced wheat from Australia wound up lining Saddam’s pockets.
With a wheat scandal embroiling the Australian government, Coleman is getting conflicting advice on what to do.
Critics say he is going easy on an Iraq war ally. Coleman’s defenders say investigating could backfire and hurt U.S. farmers.
“This should be right up his alley,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. He wants Coleman to investigate but said the White House has exerted pressure on Congress to keep out. “If this had been any country that had not supported our war effort — let’s say this had been France or Germany or Japan or any other country — I can tell you the Bush administration would have been on them with all force. … It just looks like this is Bush trying to pay them off.”
But Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, said, “It could be more harmful if the U.S. steps in right now while the Australians are already doing a good job of showing what happened. We may become the scapegoat.”
For now, Coleman is waiting.
In the fall of 2004 he was planning to investigate charges that the Australian Wheat Board had paid $220 million in kickbacks to Saddam under a deal that allowed Australia to monopolize the Iraqi market. But he backed away after meeting with Australia’s ambassador.
“He said very unequivocally that there was nothing there,” said Coleman, who then decided to focus his oil-for-food probe elsewhere. His subcommittee uncovered widespread fraud in the $64 billion program, causing Coleman to call for Annan’s resignation.
Kickbacks to Saddam’s firm
The oil-for-food program, which allowed Iraq to sell oil and use the money to buy humanitarian goods, began as a way to soften the effects of sanctions. But investigators found that the Wheat Board received inflated prices for its wheat and funneled kickbacks in the form of trucking fees to a Jordanian company partly owned by Saddam.
Since Coleman made the decision to exclude Australia from his probe, other investigators have found that the Wheat Board was the largest financier of illegal kickbacks. The wheat scandal has exploded in Australia, embarrassing the government of Prime Minister John Howard. In a retrospective of the scandal published in the Sydney Morning Herald last month, the newspaper reported that the Wheat Board reacted quickly by adding “fresh lawyers” after a Coleman staff member called its office in Portland, Ore., to warn that the board was a target of Coleman’s probe. The newspaper said it was “a turning point” for Howard when Coleman backed off and the prime minister went on to a “spectacular election victory,” days after the ambassador met with Coleman.
Coleman said he has expressed his concerns to the Australian government that he was misled. He said he was told that the ambassador did not know about the under-the-table payments at the time of their meeting. And faced with the gigantic scope of the oil-for-food program, Coleman said, he decided to focus on U.N. Security Council members.
Report expected next month
While the Australian scandal has received little attention in the United States, Howard is facing a royal commission investigating what some are calling the greatest international scam in Australian history. The commission is trying to determine what Howard and other governmental officials knew. A report is expected next month.
Torgerson said there’s no question that the scandal has hurt farmers: During the run-up to the war, U.S. producers were shut out of the Iraqi market, which led to lower prices for them and fewer acres being planted.
“It’s really hurt, because the U.S. used to have a large share of the Iraqi market,” Torgerson said. But he said Coleman is right not to investigate, because U.S. involvement could cause a backlash, angering Australian producers and making it harder for American farmers.
Harkin said it’s wrong that Congress has not had any hearings, noting that many U.S. wheat farmers are angry. On Tuesday he asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch a formal investigation into why the federal government has failed to examine the allegations surrounding the Wheat Board.
“Keep in mind that the Australian Wheat Board was the worst violator of the oil-for-food program, the worst,” Harkin said. “I’m very frustrated that this Republican Congress will not exercise any of its authority to have oversight or investigations.”
Coleman said he’s awaiting the results of the Australian probe before deciding what to do next. He said he has not been pressured by the White House to back away from his investigation.
“This is not about the Iraq war or about the administration,” Coleman said. “We’ve done a very thorough investigation of oil-for-food. It’s been hailed universally around the world.”
Coleman agrees that American farmers have suffered, but he said he has confidence in the royal commission: “Nothing’s being hid here. Nothing’s being held back. It’s a matter of what’s the best way to get to the bottom of this.”
Visiting the White House earlier this month, Howard received a vote of confidence from Bush, who made it clear he does not sympathize with those who want a U.S. probe: “My own judgment is, is that the Howard administration is pretty capable of investigating what took place.”
Rob Hotakainen is a correspondent in the Star Tribune Washington Bureau • 202-383-0009