ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said Friday that the Bush administration ignored overcharging in defense contracts awarded to Halliburton (search), the company once headed by Vice President Dick Cheney (search), calling it evidence of the president's mismanagement of the war in Iraq.
"Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton, has profited from the mess in Iraq at the expense of American troops and taxpayers," Kerry said. "While Halliburton has been engaging in massive overcharging and wasteful practices under this no-bid contract, Dick Cheney has continued to receive compensation from his former company."
Coupled with a new campaign ad aimed at the vice president, the criticism showed Kerry charging at one of his harshest critics. He rarely responds directly to the sharp words Cheney uses while campaigning for the president's re-election.
The television ad, which will air next week in Oregon and other battleground states, charges conflicts of interest stemming from money that Cheney still receives from Halliburton under a deferred compensation agreement.
It also contends that Halliburton wasted taxpayer money, in contracts awarded without competitive bidding, that could have been better used at home. Several investigations have found evidence of overcharging or raised questions about the company's performance.
"Dick Cheney got $2 million. What did we get?" the ad's narrator says. "A $200 billion bill for Iraq, lost jobs, rising health care costs. It's time for a new direction."
The $200 billion estimate reflects the campaign's calculation of funds already spent and money anticipated to be spent through next summer, based on a nonpartisan congressional report.
The new line of attack dovetails with Kerry's escalating criticism of Bush's management of security and reconstruction in Iraq.
Kerry said Bush glosses over the increasingly dangerous situation in Iraq, while the United States bears the cost in lives and money. He also said congressional leaders say Bush plans to call up more National Guard and reserve troops after the election.
"It is clear that almost every aspect of this war, from how we went to how it was conducted, has been mismanaged and mishandled," Kerry said.
The Bush-Cheney campaign said conflicts of interest in the vice president's office just aren't there. "John Kerry's latest personal attack has as much accuracy as a Kitty Kelley novel," said spokesman Steve Schmidt, referring to the expose author who recently released a book on the Bush family. "It's a breathtakingly dishonest attack by John Kerry."
Bush's campaign said the vice president had no influence on contracts awarded to his former employer, and that Cheney has no stake in Halliburton's performance. The campaign added that deferred compensation packages have been accepted by other business leaders who move to the private sector, including some in President Clinton's administration, and that Cheney has been charitable with his income.
The Democrat said he wants to clean up and open up the government contracting system by streamlining the paperwork, making it easier for smaller companies to compete, restructuring the accounting system and expanding audits. He also wants to withdraw contracts from companies that violate the law and punish businesses that overcharge the government.
The Massachusetts senator unveiled the ad while he campaigned in New Mexico, one of a number of states barraged by campaign commercials and teetering between the two presidential candidates. A poll, taken just as the Republican convention got rolling, showed Bush with a slight edge.
The state has seen higher-than-average unemployment and underemployment during the Bush administration, a factor that could work to Kerry's advantage.
F. Chris Garcia, a political science professor at the University of New Mexico, said the poll indicates that New Mexican voters might be more inclined to vote for security than a better economy, favoring Bush.
"People are generally sticking, even with some ambivalence, with the leadership that we have in these times of tension," Garcia said.