AUSTIN, Texas -- Today's fun challenge is "Spot the Next Brownie." In this fab game for the whole family, review a list of Bush administration cronies in office and see if you can pick the next Michael "Heckuva Job" Brown, another disaster waiting for a hurricane to happen.

Scope out the Bird Flu Czar from Amtrak. Stewart Simonson is now in charge of "the protection of the civilian population from acts of bioterrorism and other public health emergencies," according to his government biography. He is also in charge of ensuring the country has adequate vaccines and antiviral meds to combat an avian flu epidemic. This would be peachy-keen if Simonson had any experience in public health, bioterrorism, epidemics or even management. Unfortunately, he's a political lawyer. As he recently told a congressional subcommittee, "We're learning as we go."

Simonson's rabbi is former Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, who hired him out of law school, took him to Washington as deputy general counsel at Health and Human Services and then got him the job as general counsel of Amtrak. Ed Garvey, a well-known lawyer in Wisconsin political circles, told The Nation magazine: "He's a political hack, a sycophant. People just laughed when he was appointed to Amtrak, but when word came out that he was in charge of bioterrorism, it turned to alarm. When you realize that people's lives are at stake, it's frightening. It's just one of those moments when you say, 'Oh, my God.'"

Rep. Henry Waxman, R-Calif., who may be the last grown-up left in Washington, has also pointed out Simonson's professional inadequacies. See the article by Jeremy Scahill in the current issue of The Nation for disturbing details.

While we're still slugging it out over who's responsible for the gross failures and/or distortions of American intelligence before the war, our president tootles merrily along, fixing things in his own inimitable way. Late last month, he appointed nine campaign contributors, including three longtime fund-raisers, to the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. According to Newsweek, this is a 16-member panel of folks from the private sector who "advise the president on the quality and effectiveness of U.S. intelligence efforts."

One of the appointees, William DeWitt, a top Bush fund-raiser, was also a partner of the president's in the Texas Rangers, so his knowledge of sign-stealing may be useful. Two Texas oilmen, Ray Hunt and Don Evans, also joined the panel, along with Netscape's founder, so we can all relax about the effectiveness of intelligence.

Fortunately, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting does not normally affect national security. Nevertheless, this is another agency overrun with political hacks. According to the inspector general's scathing report on Kenneth Tomlinson, the now-resigned CPB chairman:

-- Tomlinson "violated statutory provisions and the director's code of ethics ...";

-- "'political tests' were a major criteria used ... in recruiting a (CEO) for CPB, which violated statutory prohibitions against such practices...";

-- "established procurements practices were not followed."

Of course, you don't have to be part of the Bush administration to benefit from being a crony. Cronies in the private sector making money from this administration probably outnumber the cronies Bush has put on the public payroll.

For example, America's top oil industry executives were openly kowtowed to in embarrassing fashion by Republicans at last week's congressional hearing. Among other special favors, the executives were not required to testify under oath, which turns out to be a blessing for them, since they lied.

The Washington Post found a Secret Service document showing that executives from ExxonMobil, Conoco, Shell and BP America all met with Dick Cheney's energy task force. Last week, the CEOs of ExxonMobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips said their firms did not participate in the task force. "Not to my knowledge," said the president of Shell. The guy from BP said he didn't know.

In yet another brilliant essay, Harper's editor Lewis Lapham runs down some of the post-Katrina crony-corruption taking place before our very eyes. Among the items:

-- "... the cost of ships and ferries deployed for temporary housing -- in some circumstances, $13 million for six months; in other circumstances, $70 million. Carnival Cruise Lines was hired to house evacuees and government relief workers on three ships docked in New Orleans at the weekly rate of $1,400 per guest -- as opposed to the $499 charged to passengers at sea for a week's tour of the Caribbean."

-- "Debris-removal contracts for approximately $1 billion awarded to AshBritt, Inc., a Florida corporation happily associated with Haley Barbour, governor of Mississippi and former chairman of the Republican National Committee ... "

-- "On the night of Aug. 30, and again on the morning of Aug. 31, the Southern Pines Electric Power Association in Taylorsville, Miss., received phone messages from Vice President Dick Cheney's office in Washington that dictated the order of priority for the restoration of the region's electricity -- first to a privately owned pipeline, then to public hospitals ..."

Cronies, we get lots and lots of cronies ...

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