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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- Forget Iraq. Forget Iran. Forget Afghanistan. Forget North Korea. When you get inside the voting booth Tuesday, remember this one reason for sending a clear message to those in power: The federal government of George W. Bush is robbing you blind.

Even if the charitable lobe of your brain prompts a rush of appreciation that 9/11 hasn't recurred, or a belief that strong anti-terrorism measures truly are necessary, let your motivation for voting choices be this stark guide -- domestic American life as you know it is likely to change for the worse very soon, and only fresh blood in Congress can prevent that.

Consider a trio of taxpayer-threatening occurrences in just this last week, all of them -- if I may say so -- foreshadowed in this space in recent months by warnings of their looming probability.

1) Just as Halloween dawned, the Interior Department admitted it has dropped claims that Big Oil's mammoth Chevron Corp. underpaid the federal government -- and thus you and me -- royalties for natural gas drawn from the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. This could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for the already-rich company, and if established as precedent, billions in losses to the taxpayers. The feds didn't announce this freely. The Interior Department actually gifted Chevron back in early August with the decision. It took a Freedom of Information Act filing by The New York Times to kick loose public knowledge of it.

Let's review. You will recall Chevron and other drillers seeking oil and natural gas on federal lands and in federal waters are required to pay the federal government on behalf of taxpayers a share of their proceeds, or royalties. The law sets it at between 12 and 16 percent of sales of the gas and oil products withdrawn. In 2005, natural gas producers paid $5.15 billion for these rights.

In my recent column, I wrote about government auditors who in September accused the Interior Department of deliberately hampering their efforts to recover $30 million-plus from Shell Oil Corp. and Kerr-McGee Corp. -- two of the many huge energy firms that even the pushovers in the Interior Department acknowledge owe the feds in toto about $500 million from three-year-old royalties that were either miscalculated or were favored with undeserved exemptions.

Now, we learn from Edmund Andrews -- a New York Times reporter who's been especially diligent and perceptive in covering this rather esoteric issue -- that Interior poohbahs, after settling on a token $6 million, have simply given up on getting Chevron to cough up the rest of the royalties that firm owes, probably scores of millions of dollars. The Interior Department keeps secret the precise figures of how much the taxpayers are getting screwed over for.

Interior officials told the Times the feds have "little or no chance" of recapturing the extra funds owed us, because an internal appeals board had ruled against government auditors in another case. But challenges from private landowners and state governments in the same situation have so far produced at least $70 million in additional royalties.

Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Edward Markey told the Times reporter taxpayers have been "systematically fleeced out of royalties that these companies owe for the privilege of drilling for oil and gas on lands belonging to all of us."

The latest revelation, Markey noted, "proves that the Bush administration is incapable of preventing Big Oil companies from cheating taxpayers."

No wonder corporate heads of the big energy firms practically went into orgasmic shocks of joy back in 2000 when Dubya came to power.

2) Remember the column regarding mammoth overcharges to the taxpayer by private firms doing government business in Iraq -- among them Halliburton, the firm that gifted Vice President Richard Cheney with scores of millions of dollars in "bonus" pay when he stepped down as company president in 1999 to run for No. 2?

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a lawyer named Stuart W. Bowen Jr., found so much theft and miscreant bookkeeping that several American occupation officials went to jail for bribery, discovered hundreds of thousands of deadly weapons shipped to Iraqi "security forces" were missing or unable to be traced, and exposed ridiculously shoddy construction work by Halliburton and other companies favored with contracts from the Bush administration without the headache of taking bids.

The revelations of thievery and corruption were embarrassing to the White House and Pentagon, so it comes as no surprise to a skeptic like me that last Friday I discover -- also on the front of The New York Times -- a story about how Stuart W. Bowen was rewarded.

He was canned, that's how, and Bowen -- a Republican himself -- served under Dubya in other capacities in both the White House and the Texas governor's office in Austin. So you know Dubya had to be really steamed at the crook-catching.

President Dubya in mid-October signed a military budget authorization about two feet high in page measurement, and buried way inside it was a paragraph terminating the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction by next October. The provision surprised some senators -- including Republicans John Warner of Virginia and Susan Collins of Maine -- who swear they didn't see it when they read the conference report, which reconciles the House and Senate versions of a bill and isn't supposed to contain anything new unless argued out in conference committee by members of both houses.

"That provision was not in at that time," Sen. Collins told the Times. Warner and Collins said they would both work to reverse the termination and to extend Bowen's charter with new legislation after the election. Somebody clearly slipped the termination language into the conference bill -- an unheard-of violation of strict congressional rules until this administration came along. California Democrat Henry Waxman, who as a member of the rough-and-tumble House doesn't have to be as respectful as his uber-polite colleagues in the pompous Senate, was a bit more on point. He told Times reporter James Glanz that it appears "the administration wants to silence the messenger that is giving us information about waste and fraud in Iraq."

3) And now for the piece de resistance. A few weeks back, we carried here a report on how the major insurance companies were being sued by even rock-ribbed Republicans like Trent Lott over their reluctance to pay legitimate damage claims resulting from Hurricane Katrina -- even though they have billions and billions of dollars in reserve for just such catastrophes. It was flood water that did the damage, moan the corporate adjustors, not the "wind" specifically mentioned in the insurance contracts -- ignoring the fact the water never would have done the damage had it not been for the wind pushing or releasing it.

Well, now the corporate whiners have added insult to injury. Not only do they wish to avoid helping the victims of Katrina with monies they clearly owe them -- they want us to pay them. That's riiiiiight, you and me, the good old taxpayers.

Allstate and State Farm, which between them provide about 35 percent of all homeowner insurance in the country, are pushing for federal legislation that would lay off such "losses" on the taxpayer. The federal government already promises to provide commercial insurers a reimbursement plan in case of another terrorist attack like 9/11, but this is the first time any firm has had the gall to ask for it to cushion storm damage. This is the business they chose, for gosh sakes -- they weren't forced into it. Even Mafia chieftains understand the ethic that takes place here. You hear them enunciate it all the time in movies when something bad happens. "This is the business we chose," they remind themselves. "You have to take what comes with it."

But noooooo, Allstate and State Farm -- and soon their colleagues, to be sure -- want to change that saying to "This is the business you, the taxpayer, must underwrite, whether you like it or not."

What they specifically have in mind is for state and federal support that would pay for any damage after the first $4.5 billion in claims. The proposed legislation, no surprise, was introduced by legislators from Florida. Allstate and State Farm have been upping premiums there and refusing big gobs of coastal home insurance, so the Sunshine State is seeking help from the rest of the nation, as it were. And this in a year when profits on home insurance are skyrocketing.

Don't be surprised if this sweetheart of a bill passes and is signed into law by Dubya. Powerful lobbyists are already behind it.

So, think about these things when you get in the voting booth Tuesday. But don't worry too much over which button you push.

With all these newfangled electronic and computerized machines instead of the able-to-be-recounted paper and punch methods, your vote probably won't get recorded anyway.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com November 6 2006