IG: $400M Border Contract Awarded Properly, Though Investigators Met Roadblocks in Interviews
This was one of several contracts awarded under the Trump administration for the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
A controversial $400 million contract for the U.S.-Mexico border wall was awarded properly, a watchdog said recently, although investigators encountered some roadblocks in the interview process.
The Defense Department inspector general released a report on Friday about the contract that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded to Fisher Sand and Gravel Company to design and build about 31 miles of border infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border in Yuma County, Arizona in December 2019. The IG took up the review later in December 2019 following a request from Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, who cited possible improper influence by the Trump administration in the contracting process. Tommy Fisher, company president, is a Republican donor who previously made numerous appearances on conservative-leaning news outlets touting his company’s ability to perform the work, which The Washington Post compiled.
Army Corps “contracting officials properly awarded [the] contract to Fisher Sand and Gravel,” meaning the solicitation and award followed federal procurement laws and regulations, said the report. “Additionally, [Army Corps] officials testified that there was no undue influence, and none of the information and documents reviewed by the DoD OIG provided evidence that there was undue influence from the White House or members of Congress that affected the award of the Yuma 3 Project contract to Fisher Sand and Gravel.”
The IG looked at communications from Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., in whose state Fisher Sand and Gravel is headquartered.
However, the IG noted that the White House Counsel’s Office insisted that attorneys from the Defense Department’s Office of General Counsel attend interviews as a condition for the IG to interview them.
“Based on White House Counsel’s guidance, the [Defense Office of General Counsel] attorney invoked presidential communications privilege during our interviews [with six of its 13 Army Corps witnesses] for questions related to the influence of President Trump, Mr. [Jared] Kushner, and the White House administration,” said the report. “Because we were unable to ask follow-up questions or further explore matters relating to any White House communications, we are unable to substantiate or refute these interviewee assertions.”
Since the IG’s review spanned December 2019 to November 2021, Government Executive asked the office exactly when this invoking of executive privilege occurred, but it did not respond by the time of this article’s publication.
Despite this, the IG was able to review all 13 employees’ emails and did not find any evidence of “undue influence” in those messages.
“Unfortunately, the DoD IG was not able to definitively determine the full extent or nature of interactions that White House officials may have had with senior [Army Corps] officials regarding the solicitation and award of the border wall contract,” said Thompson, in a statement to Government Executive. “It is disappointing that the Pentagon and White House Counsel’s Office would not allow six of the 13 key witnesses interviewed to answer specific questions about communications regarding the contract, including not only the substance of the communications but the fact that any communications occurred at all.”
Cramer, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Environment and Public Works committees, which both have jurisdiction over the Army Corps, said this is “a complete and total exoneration,” in a statement. “House Democrats wasted taxpayer time and money while the Biden administration is actively ignoring a crisis of their own doing at the Southern border.”
Government Executive reached out to Fisher Sand and Gravel for comment, but the company did not respond by the time of this article’s publication.
This $400 million contract was one of several issued during the Trump administration to build his signature border wall. The Biden administration has been canceling whatever border wall contracts it can and repurposing funds as well as repairing damage caused by construction.