Bundles of Boodle, Missing in Action

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday June 15, 2011 - 12:37:00 PM

It’s a mind-boggling image.

Great big military cargo planes, packed to the gills with shrink-wrapped bundles of hundred-dollar bills, destined for….where, exactly? Or whom, precisely?

If you believe the article in the L.A. Times , approximately $6.6 billion, give or take a few bales of hundreds, seems to have turned up missing. The Times reporter hypothesized that the money might have been "the largest theft of funds in national history," in a quote attributed to an auditor on the case. 

Fox News today features a more temperate quote from the same guy, backpedalling a bit: 

"I said, yes, it would be a very significant serious crime," he said. "So yes, the reporter was correct that some of it, and perhaps a lot of it, has been stolen. But we don't have a factual basis to reach that conclusion. What we said over and over again is that the lack of controls created vulnerabilities to fraud, waste and abuse." 

The implication is that it’s somehow better to say “I don’t know” than to say “we wuz robbed.”  

Why would that be? A daring heist by masked and armed Al Qaeda operatives, loading the cash onto, I don’t know, camels perhaps, is shocking but comprehensible, whereas “we don’t have a factual basis” is somewhat equivalent to “the dog ate my homework.” 

(Not, of course, that dogs don’t. A professor friend claims to have seen dog teethmarks on a partially destroyed thesis manuscript, though how they got there is a separate question.) 

But the big question in my mind is why they were schlepping around plane-loads of cash in the first place. More from the Times: 

“The cash was carried by tractor-trailer trucks from the fortress-like Federal Reserve currency repository in East Rutherford, N.J., to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, then flown to Baghdad. U.S. officials there stored the hoard in a basement vault at one of Hussein's former palaces, and at U.S. military bases, and eventually distributed the money to Iraqi ministries and contractors.

“But U.S. officials often didn't have time or staff to keep strict financial controls. Millions of dollars were stuffed in gunnysacks and hauled on pickups to Iraqi agencies or contractors, officials have testified.” 

One radio report I heard said something about electronic funds transfer not being available at that time, which is why they needed to send paper money. That’s a pretty flimsy excuse. 

Having once participated in international commerce myself, I know that EFT and sacks of currency are not the only two alternatives. Letters of credit have been used for transactions like this for centuries, and paper checks are another choice, widely trusted in the pre-computer era.  

The money in question belonged to the people of Iraq, payment for oil extracted from their country. Speculation about who might have gotten it is rampant, but whether the crooks were American or Iraqi, it’s gone gone gone. Could it have been burned up in a plane crash? Set afire by a misguided drone? With that amount of paper just floating around, many scenarios could be constructed, but it seems that we’ll never know. 

In a perverse way, this reminds me of a current controversy over what the take-home pay of BUSD employees might amount to. A newly-formed group, Berkeley Budget SOS, issued a report claiming that overtime expenses for City of Berkeley employees were dramatically out of line in comparison with similar bay area cities.  

A later “fair and balanced” story in the East Bay Express quotes a number of Berkeley city officials disputing that claim, most on the grounds that what BB-SOS took to be overtime was actually a miscellany of expenses connected to the employees in question in a variety of ways TBD. 

But where the city’s money is actually being spent is almost as mysterious as what happened to the rumored $6.6 billion in cash in Iraq. The latest committee set up to watchdog the Berkeley budget is just one in a long line of similar organizations which have struggled with the question of interpreting data that’s made murky by city staff, either deliberately or inadvertently. Once upon a time there was a Berkeley Citizens’ Budget Commission, but it was axed by the city mothers and fathers in 2005, probably for being too nosy—and there were several others before and since.  

The bottom line is that there’s a lot of “money” floating around these days, in and out of government coffers, and despite (or perhaps because of) the availability of up-to-date computer tracking systems there’s a lot of tracking that’s not happening.  

Last night’s Berkeley City Council meeting provided yet another local example, small but telling. West Berkeley Councilmember Darryl Moore suggested that perhaps some money in a tight budget could be saved by cancelling Berkeley’s traditional Fourth of July fireworks display at the Berkeley Marina.  

How much money? Well, it depends. 

The sum of $80,000 was bandied about, but the question of what it goes for was not satisfactorily answered. Police overtime might be the answer, or it might not. Whether the small army of overtime and special police officers annually present at the event might be replaced, to save money, by a smaller number of non-sworn parking personnel or even volunteers never came up. The discussion was postponed, as it has been for several years now, until winter, but don’t take any bets that it will ever take place.  

It’s not that $80,000, plus or minus, is anything but small potatoes in light of Berkeley’s projected budget shortfall. It’s not that Berkeleyans can’t go to Oakland or Richmond or even San Francisco to see fireworks.  

But this is just another example of Berkeley’s data-free decision-making. It seems that no matter what specific financial question Berkeley’s largely passive councilmembers see fit to ask, staff’s stock answer is “I don’t know” or perhaps “we’ll have to get back to you on that”. Sadly, getting no answer seldom prevents the council from voting anyhow, and on matters weightier than whether or not to sponsor a fireworks extravaganza. The show, it seems, must go on regardless.