Pentagon Delays Answers on Border Wall Contract, Watchdog Says
(Bloomberg) -- The Pentagon’s inspector general has complained that Defense Department attorneys are slow-walking an 11-month-old request to turn over executive branch emails on a $400 million border wall contract awarded to a construction company tied to the Trump administration.
The slow review process has “significantly delayed our access to the requested information,” Acting Inspector General Sean O’Donnell wrote in his office’s semiannual report to Congress. “Without the requested e-mails and other related information, we cannot complete our oversight work.”
Although O’Donnell didn’t identify the contract he’s investigating in the report issued Monday, Representative Bennie Thompson confirmed on Thursday that the dispute concerns a contract that the Army Corps of Engineers awarded to Fisher Sand & Gravel Co., as did two officials familiar with the case.
“It seems clear the Trump administration is dragging its feet in cooperating with the investigation into the Fisher border wall contract, which has already gone on for a year,” Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who heads the Homeland Security Committee and requested the review, said in a statement when asked about the inspector general’s complaint.
Thompson previously raised concerns of possible “inappropriate influence” by White House officials, including President Donald Trump, in the contract award.
Last December, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded the contract to design and build border infrastructure in Yuma County, Arizona. Fisher hadn’t been awarded a wall construction contract previously “as its proposals reportedly did not meet the operational requirements of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and its prototype project came in late and over budget,” Thompson wrote in December 2019.
“Nevertheless, President Trump has personally repeatedly urged” the Army Corps “to award construction contracts to Fisher Sand & Gravel Co.,” Thompson wrote.
Fisher’s chief executive officer, Tommy Fisher, promoted his closely held firm’s wall-building ambitions on Fox News, an outlet frequently watched by Trump, and the president told the network that Fisher was “recommended strongly” by Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, where the company was founded.
Jamie Tescher, a public relations spokeswoman designated by Fisher Sand & Gravel, acknowledged receiving a request for comment but didn’t provide one on Thursday.
O’Donnell -- who Trump made the Defense Department’s acting inspector general in April after ousting his predecessor -- said in his report on the watchdog office’s activities from April through September that the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel asserted a sweeping claim of executive privilege “after coordinating with the White House.”
He said the general counsel’s office claims that “the presidential communications privilege applies” not only to exchanges with the president but also between his staff and defense officials and even to “communications internal to the DoD concerning information received from the White House or staff.”
O’Donnell said the office had provided information for only one Defense Department official’s communications and hasn’t started reviewing the emails of 12 others to see if any fall within the “potential presidential communications privilege.”
The section of the report that discloses O’Donnell’s concerns is entitled “Significantly Delayed Access to Information” and calls that “a result of screening processes the DoD is using.”
In addition to federal funding it has received, Fisher was the contractor chosen by a conservative foundation to build a privately funded barrier along the Mexico border. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon and three others who ran the foundation have pleaded not guilty to charges they conspired to defraud thousands of donors and launder money from the project. Fisher hasn’t been charged with wrongdoing.
Lisa Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon’s general counsel, said the department “disagrees with the IG’s characterization of events.”
The general counsel “worked closely” to “address the IG’s extremely broad document requests, properly staffed these large scale document review projects, including contracting for resources outside the DOD,” she said. The office “timely produced records in a way that both protected all applicable privileges and allowed the IG to conduct its investigation.”
Dwrena Allen, O’Donnell’s spokeswoman, declined to provide additional details saying that the audit is ongoing and the semiannual report “speaks for itself.”
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