Frauds, phonies and cellular cronies

It’s not enough to award a $900 million Pentagon contract to a sleazeball telecomm giant who wants to dominate the ground floor of Iraq’s cell phone network.

Heck, no. Competition is bad. You’ve got to knock that dinky little Bahraini mobile phone firm on its arse. That’ll give those bustling entrepreneurs at MCI, formerly WorldCom Inc. and now a bankrupt embarrassment to the free market, a chance.

Last month, the U.S.-led Iraqi leadership, the Coalition Provisional Authority, told Batelco, an existing provider of roaming cell phone service in Iraq, to give up its business for lack of a license. Batelco said it asked the U.S.-led administration for a license. The company had pledged to invest about $50 million in a new network. No matter.

Batelco’s out.

MCI (WorldCom) is in.

The U.S. Army and other international workers in Iraq have been using a Baghdad-based phone network built by WorldCom. But ordinary Iraqis couldn’t use the service. Now, a new wireless MCI network is expected to draw 2 million customers upon rollout.

Maybe you, too, are wondering why WorldCom was selected since, in late July, WorldCom was actually banned from competing for new government contracts. (Too late, suckers, we’ve already got Iraq! Haha!)

The company was found by the U.S. General Service Administration to be lacking in areas of internal controls and “business ethics,” according to a Reuters story. The bankrupt company’s reorganization hearing, scheduled for Monday, was moved back to Sept. 8. Then there’s the bit about the $11 billion accounting scandal. And the fact that the Federal Communications Commission is investigating whether WorldCom illegally routed telephone calls to avoid paying connection fees to other carriers.

Ah, but what’s the problem with a bit of good-old fashioned hardscrabble ingenuity? If MCI is the most qualified company for the job, let ’em have it.

Well, that doesn’t seem to be the case, either. Many other cell phone companies have more experience setting up networks from scratch, says Forrester Research analyst Lars Godell, as quoted by Ted Rall in a story. And it wasn’t like the Bush Administration went out looking for competitive bids before awarding the lucrative contract.

Rall attributes the good fortune of WorldCom to a good fortune spent on politicking.

A week before WorldCom’s accounting scandal broke last year, the company contributed $100,000 to a GOP fundraiser. WorldCom gave John Ashcroft $10,000 toward his Senate race. (That was before John got his current gig.) The Trent Lott Leadership Institute at the University of Mississippi received $1 million from WorldCom.

“With Republicans controlling Congress, the Supreme Court and the White House, WorldCom no longer needs to be an equal-opportunity corruptor,” Rall writes.

It’s no wonder that the Anybody But Bush in 2004 Party is gaining force. Yup, we’re hearing that voters these days want someone new in the White House. A Newsweek poll of registered voters nationwide Aug. 21-22 recorded 49 percent not in favor of re-electing George W. Bush, with 44 percent in favor of keeping Bush. The week prior, a Zogby America poll showed 48 percent voting for “someone new” and 45 percent keeping George.

Given the 3 to 4 percent margin of error on both polls, this isn’t saying a lot. But sometimes you just need that encouragement.

In barely related news, a couple of people didn’t quite get the saying on the T-shirt that I wrote about last week. The shirt says, “Bush is Sauron. Save the Shire.” Sauron, in the series The Lord of the Rings, is the embodiment of evil. The Shire is a place of idyllic goodness. Get it?

Frodo lives.