Do a web search for Dick Cheney and you’ll see headlines like the Atlantic’s “Remembering why Americans Loathe [him]”. It’s not hard to find people who want to take the former Vice President to task for a slew of wrongdoings. But few have the courage or wherewithal to take him on.
Whistleblower Bunnatine ‘Bunny’ Greenhouse had no such misgivings. Greenhouse grew up in the Louisiana Delta, in a family of high achievers. Her older sister was one of the first black professors at Louisiana State University and her older brother, also a PhD, taught college in Baton Rouge. She was valedictorian of her high school class and earned three separate Master’s degrees after she graduated Southern University. Unsurprisingly, Greenhouse was drawn to a career in teaching, and became the first black instructor some of her white students had ever seen. But after 16 years in the classroom, and while raising 3 children, she decided to switch careers and enter government service. Greenhouse started at the bottom and worked her way up, spending long hours at the office and taking advantage of every professional development opportunity available to her.
In 1997, it all paid off. Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard promoted her to one of the top civilian jobs in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He tasked her with supervising and managing billions of dollars in government contracts, which included everything from building bridges to supporting troops at war. It was a job she took seriously and she received great reviews. In fact, Ballard said he had hired Greenhouse for her consummate professionalism and to cut through the agency’s culture of cronyism. And that’s exactly what she did.
But Greenhouse’s efforts were not without consequence. During the lead up to the Iraq War, Greenhouse was troubled by a bid that came in. It was from Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR). At the time, KBR was owned by Halliburton, whose CEO was none other than Dick Cheney. The Army Corps wanted to award a secret, no bid, no competition, “emergency” contract to KBR to provide services in Iraq for two to five years. Greenhouse blanched. What kind of “emergency” could last for five years and why couldn’t other companies compete to do the work?
Greenhouse pushed back, arguing that the contract should be approved for no more than one year of emergency status. But her protests were ignored and the terms of the contract remained unchanged. KBR was awarded an exclusive contract worth around $7 billion. Greenhouse continued to object. After refusing to ratify the final contract and being overridden, Greenhouse took her complaint to Congress. “I can unequivocally state that the abuse related to contracts awarded to KBR represents the most blatant and improper contract abuse I have witnessed during the course of my professional career,” she told them.
Whistleblowing was career suicide. Greenhouse’s excellent work-record and impressive career were now eclipsed. Two months after her testimony, she was demoted, stripped of her top-secret clearance, and suddenly on the receiving end of low performance ratings. The Corps insisted that her demotion was based on “performance and not in retaliation for any disclosures of alleged improprieties she may have made.”
Bunny could have said nothing at this point, or retired quietly. Instead, she hired a lawyer and fought back ferociously.
“I learned very early that everything you did in life you did with every fiber of your being,” she told the Washington Post. “Why would I sit here now and let them tell me that I’m something I’m not? Why would I do that? I’m Bunny Greenhouse first, then I’m in a government position. I will not compromise who I am.”
The case made international headlines. Suddenly, Greenhouse, along with Halliburton and Vice President Dick Cheney were embroiled in a very public fight.
Eventually, in July 2011, The US Army Corps of Engineers settled and Greenhouse was awarded nearly $1 million dollars in lost wages and damages. She was hailed a national hero for her courage and determination to expose cronyism within the Corps. But she refused to accept accolades and instead called her actions simply patriotic. Bunny Greenhouse, we salute you.