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Congress Questions Customs and Border Protection Over Border Wall Construction Contracts

August 28, 2020 by Reece Nations
The U.S. Capitol as seen from the U.S. Supreme Court building. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON – A change in Customs and Border Protection policy that allows the agency to award its own contracts for select U.S.-Mexico border wall construction projects is being questioned by congressional members.

In a letter addressed to acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan, Reps. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., and Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., expressed concern regarding the policy change. Prior to this change, CBP delegated construction project contracting exclusively to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Thompson is chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security while Rice chairs the Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation, and Operations. The letter requests CBP to “halt performance under any contracts it has awarded” and provide the committee justification for the decision by Sept. 10.

Together, the chairs seek an explanation from CBP regarding its decision to award a $290 million contract to Fisher Sand & Gravel Co., which had previously been contracted to construct and submit a prototype concrete border wall in 2017. Although Fisher was “one of the vendors that built an entirely concrete prototype,” CBP contracted the company to “construct approximately 17 miles of border wall in Webb County, Texas” out of “other-than-concrete materials,” the letter noted.

The propriety of the company’s initial contract award is being audited by the Department of Defense’s Office of Inspector General, according to the office’s website. Thompson and Rice’s letter to CBP also made note of “significant quality issues” with portions of the border wall previously built by Fisher on private land in Sunland Park, N.M., and Mission, Texas, as reported by The Nation.

The information requested in the chairs’ letter includes a rationalization for CBP’s decision to start awarding contracts, an explanation of the agency’s methodology in awarding these contracts and the reasoning behind “why CBP has decided to restrict competition to those vendors awarded contracts to build barrier prototypes.” The chairs asked the agency to provide detailed cost-benefit, market research and other analyses used to determine contract recipients in the letter.

In addition, the chairs’ requested CBP furnish a copy of the agency’s acquisition plan and decision memorandum, copies of “all solicitations and contracts” CBP awarded for wall projects since Jan. 2020, and evidence of a quality assurance plan. 

“Fisher’s selection raises questions about how CBP is soliciting and awarding border wall construction contracts,” the text of the letter read. “For example, it is unclear why CBP is restricting bids to those vendors that received contracts in 2017 to build barrier prototypes, especially since none of the prototype designs are being constructed.”

“This approach is counter to acquisition best practices of promoting full and open competition and opportunities for small businesses,” the letter continued. “We also have concerns about CBP’s capacity to properly oversee contractor performance.”

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