Greg Palast Presents "Vultures’ Picnic" in San Diego
Investigative Reporter Ties Oil Scandals Into the Occupy Movement
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. famously used the phrase, “I have a dream,” as he addressed an estimated 250,000 people on the mall at Washington, D.C. at the climax of the March on Washington for equal rights for African-Americans. Forty-eight years later, introducing his new book "Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores" before a much smaller audience at San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, investigative journalist Greg Palast used his own recurring phrase, “This is why we occupy,” to tie his book, and its obsessively documented tales of corporate irresponsibility, into a movement that hadn’t yet gone public when his manuscript arrived at Dutton, a branch of Penguin — the world’s largest publisher — and was readied for release.
Written in mock-James Bond style, replete with characters with names like
Goldfinger and Ms. Badpenny, Vultures’ Picnic kicks off with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and travels all over the world, from the coast of Alaska to New Orleans to Liberia to Azerbaijan (which Palast calls “The Islamic Republic of BP”) to Fukushima, Japan and wherever else he can document the abusive amorality of corporations and how it’s literally killing people. Though his book was available in print form at the event, Palast worked at least as hard promoting the interactive version for e-readers and tablet computers — and early on in his speech he mocked Republican rhetoric by saying he’d received a request from Mitt Romney to take the word “vultures” out of his book’s title and rename it Job Creators’ Picnic.
“We occupy for Stanlee Ann Mattingly, an Osage Indian who made a week watching the oil trucks,” Palast said in the first of several stories from his book which wove a web depicting corporate power, influence and sheer greed. “She saw them take out 100 barrels of oil on the Osage reservation and mark down 70 barrels. They’d take 40 barrels and mark down 30. I followed the trucks to the central loading dock, and the man said, ‘I want more overage.’ In the old days we called that ‘thievery.’ Today we call it ‘job creation.’ The guy standing on the deck was named Charles Koch” — one of the notorious Koch brothers who are among the principal corporate villains cited by the Occupy movement — “and when he was asked why, since he’s already a billionaire and he’s taking from Stanlee Ann Mattingly — Koch said, ‘I want what’s coming to me, and that’s all of it.’”
Palast, who made his living as an oil company consultant before he got fired and became a journalist (in Vultures’ Picnic he said his last work for the oil industry was a four-volume study of the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 that pointed out that, though Exxon took the public blame, “the real culprit in destroying the coastline of Alaska is British Petroleum”), said he received a cable from a confidential source which said that BP had had a similar spill to the Deepwater Horizon blowout in September 2008. You didn’t hear about it, he explained, because it occurred in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — whose government was so pro-oil industry and anti-investigative reporting that the Azerbaijani police actually arrested Palast and his crew when they tried to film the site of the disaster in 2011.
The spill off Baku occurred, Palast claimed, for the exact same reason the Deepwater Horizon rig blew two years later: “cheap cement made by Halliburton” that couldn’t withstand the pressure of the oil under the ocean floor. “They covered it up with bribes, beatings and babes,” Palast said. “Lord Brown [BP CEO] flew in a 727 with two bags and brought the Azerbaijani officials to lap dances in London. One bag was million and the other bag was Margaret Thatcher. Leslie, a double agent for MI-6 [the British equivalent of the CIA and the agency the fictitious James Bond worked for], was a BP executive. He was holding the bag with the million. Lord Brown wanted to hand it directly to the president of Azerbaijan. The president turned the money over to the Azerbaijani state oil company — and BP provided some weaponry to a guy named Baba, who used it to overthrow the Azerbaijani president in a coup. Three months later, BP got an exclusive contract to drill in the Caspian Sea.”
Palast, who does his reporting for British outlets — the Guardian newspaper and the BBC — because no American mainstream media, including PBS (which because it gets so much corporate sponsorship from Chevron and other oil companies, he calls the “Petroleum Broadcasting System”), will touch his stuff, explained that under British law he’s required to report what he’s about to publish to the company he’s targeting to ask them whether or not it’s true. When he was about to report that a BP executive had lied to the U.S. Congress in 2009 when he said the company had never had a deepwater drilling accident, just a year after they had in the Caspian, BP neither affirmed nor denied it. Instead, Palast explained, “BP sent back a note that said, ‘We followed all the rules and regulations.’ No denial. It was a very smart phrase at the time because under British law it was not against the law to pay bribes.” According to Palast, BP’s lies cost the lives of Jason Alexander and the other 10 Deepwater Horizon crew members who were killed when the rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
As for Palast’s condemnation of PBS as the “Petroleum Broadcasting System,” as part of his evidence he cited the documentary its acclaimed series Frontline did on the Deepwater Horizon spill. “Nothing about Baku,” he said, “but they did say that BP had ignored several safety warnings. They didn’t say that PBS had also ignored BP’s safety record. Then they said that BP had no ‘culture of safety’ — unlike Chevron.” According to Palast, not only did the PBS filmmakers uphold PBS’s number one sponsor in the oil industry as the company whose “culture of safety” BP should have emulated, the network redesigned its Web site around the same time to delete the Chevron logo and the acknowledgment of it as the network’s number one corporate sponsor.
In order to challenge Chevron’s claim to be the “good” oil company as opposed to BP’s “bad” oil company, Palast ended up in Ecuador, where he was ferried across a lake in “a carved dugout log with a paddle and an indigenous guy paddling it” to investigate a spill at a Chevron site. Chevron had been sued by several native Ecuadorians who said the company had spilled oil into their lakes and hadn’t warned the natives that swimming in the oil-covered waters could be toxic. “Chevron had said this was the biggest fraud in history,” Palast recalled, “and so I asked, ‘Who’s the biggest con man?’ I asked the chief, ‘Didn’t you just hook up with some rich gringos with deep pockets?’”
As Palast recounted it, the chief was “very formal” as he told him that both his sons had bathed in the oil-tainted waters, started vomiting blood and eventually died of leukemia. “The Chevron lawyers said, ‘So these are the only kids that ever got cancer?’ Then they said, ‘You can’t prove that it’s our oil.’ But I got hold of this document, signed by B. J. Shields, the president of Texaco [before its merger with Chevron], that’s an order to take all documents relating to oil spilled in the jungle and make them ‘ser destrucados.’ I asked the lawyers for Chevron/Texaco to translate, and then I asked if they knew the meaning of the words ‘obstruction of justice.’ They said, ‘There’s always an explanation,’ so I asked them to send it to me. It’s been two years.”
Palast’s wide-ranging presentation included a discussion of the mysterious death of Gulf Power executive Jake Horton in Pensacola, Florida in 1989. Palast called him “a real scumbag, until the end,” and said he had been about to turn state’s evidence in a federal investigation of Gulf Power and its corporate parent, the Southern Company, when he was killed in a plane crash. “In the old days, corporations could not make donations to political candidates,” Palast explained. “But [Horton] did, and when he got caught and the company let him hang out to dry, Jake said he had a lot of dirt and he went to meet with the attorney general of Alabama. Thirty minutes after his plane took off, it went boom and both he and his papers were gone.”
According to a contemporary report in the May 22, 1989 Time magazine, three hours after the plane exploded, the local sheriff’s office received an anonymous phone call. The caller said, “You can stop investigating Gulf Power now. We took care of that for them this afternoon.” The article also mentioned at least three other mysterious deaths involving Gulf Power, including Pensacola graphic artist Ray Howell, who disappeared in December 1988 as he was about to testify before a grand jury about his work for Gulf Power; and Gulf Power director Robert McRae and his wife, who were found shot to death at their Graceville, Florida home in January 1989. Fredric Levin, Horton’s attorney, told Time that after Horton’s death three yellow birds were dumped outside his home and office. Levin, Time reported, believed these were “Mafia-style warnings not to divulge the substance of his last conversation with Horton.”
Horton, Palast said, had not only paid illegal bribes to Florida utility regulators on behalf of Gulf Power and Southern Company, he also had evidence that the company was billing utility customers for coal it was supposedly mining from its own mines — but the supposed “coal” shipments were actually rocks. After Horton’s death, Palast got access to Southern’s internal records and found they were billing customers for 0 million for “spare parts” for their nuclear reactors and power lines — “spare parts” that did not in fact exist. Palast flew to England to try to stop Southern’s bit for a British utility company — and was entrapped in a phony sex scandal which was widely reported in tabloid articles, including one written by Piers Morgan, now host of CNN’s flagship evening talk show.
Meanwhile, Southern neatly got out of any legal jeopardy by using its political connections to have the laws rewritten so what they had done is no longer illegal. What’s more, Southern and Reliant Energy, a company Palast describes as equally corrupt, have won contracts to build two of the five new nuclear power plants under billion in loan guarantees enacted under President Obama. According to Palast, some of these plants will be operated by yet another company — Tokyo Electric, the people who ran the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan destroyed in the March 2011 tsunami. These companies got the contract, Palast said, by bidding to build each reactor for billion even though their own internal documents said each plant would cost over billion, which, Palast noted, “used to be called fraud and is now called ‘job creation.’”
Palast’s presentation also included a section about “pigs” — electronic devices that are supposed to monitor oil pipelines for leaks. Once the pig detects a leak, the company running the pipeline is legally required to shut it down until the leak is fixed — but, Palast explained, because it’s expensive to have a pipeline out of commission that long, oil companies routinely change the computer software governing the pigs so leaks go undetected. Palast said he got this story from sources who refused to be identified or photographed — even with their faces blurred out and their voices distorted — including one who identified himself as “Pig Man” and said a recent incident in which six people had been killed by an exploding pipeline was “not an accident, it’s a homicide.”
Also on his docket were the Keystone XL pipeline, being pushed by a Canadian company to deliver oil from tar sands across the United States — cutting across, and potentially soiling, several important aquifers, including the one that supplies water to the entire state of Nebraska — and a recent ad campaign by Coca-Cola that involves marketing special white cans of Coca-Cola and announcing that “they’re raising money for endangered polar bears.” This, Palast said, led him to a virtually unreported story that the polar bears on the Alaskan island of Kaktonic are being moved so the area — part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge — can be drilled for oil. According to Palast, President Obama approved the permit for Shell Oil to drill off the coast of Kaktonic on August 8, 2011.
Palast’s dossiers can make dispiriting reading — which is probably why he cast the book as a James Bond-like adventure and gave his villains names like “Goldfinger.” The man’s real name is Michael Francis Sheehan, an American investor who runs his company out of the British Virgin Islands. Sheehan, Palast said, “had paid million to the president of Zambia to agree to have his nation pay off foreign debts with money we gave them for AIDS medicines.” He also, Palast claimed, got rid of the prime minister of Bosnia and installed a new one who would go along with what he wanted. Palast said the Bush administration actually contacted him for his information on Sheehan, but the FBI never followed up.
“The Zambians arrested their own president, and the Bosnians are investigating their prime minister, but the Americans are doing nothing” about Sheehan’s alleged corruption, Palast said. As for Sheehan himself, the day before Palast spoke in San Diego Sheehan called the BBC “and said, ‘We have a file on Greg Palast.’ I’d like to see it.” Palast said he’s also investigating Charles and David Koch, who have become the Left’s current poster children for the evils of capitalism, and closed out his presentation with a plea for activists to “occupy the airwaves” and a boast that “we have to tell the vultures the feast is over. Charles Koch, you may be too big to fail, but you’re not too big to jail!”