Questions on stimulus spending at border linger

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Associated Press

Posted on October 25, 2009 at 9:35 PM

Updated Sunday, Oct 25 at 9:35 PM

WASHINGTON (AP) — A watchdog's review of stimulus spending by the Department of Homeland Security doesn't resolve the controversy about how the Obama administration allocated the money for border projects.

The inspector general's report, obtained Friday by The Associated Press, says the department generally had a good spending plan. But department officials told the inspector general not to go further and review anything beyond its spending plan, including a decision-making process criticized as secretive and susceptible to political meddling. The department said it's doing its own internal review.

The plan includes $680 million for projects managed by the Customs and Border Protection agency, which is part of Homeland Security.

In August, the AP reported that the administration did not follow its own list of priorities in handing out $720 million to renovate border crossings; some $420 million came from Homeland Security funds.

Despite Obama's promises that the $787 billion stimulus plan would be transparent and free of politics, the department used a selection process for renovating border crossings that is secretive and vulnerable to political influence. This allowed low-priority projects such as small checkpoints along the country's northern border to skip ahead of more pressing concerns at larger facilities on the southern border, according to documents revealed to the AP.

Despite the inspector general's recent findings, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., is concerned that these checkpoints, which see very little traffic compared with those on the southern border, are getting too much stimulus money.

Dorgan long has sought improvements at northern border checkpoints, including those in his home state. He said he recently visited two of them.

"They're small ports of entry with very light traffic, averaging about five vehicles an hour," Dorgan said. "I'm more convinced than ever that they have to modify the spending."

Facing criticism for her handling of federal stimulus money, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano in September called for a 30-day review of the spending decisions and promised she would not start any new border construction projects until that review was complete. The department expects to announce the results of that review in the coming week.

The department's inspector general, Richard Skinner, told Dorgan on Friday that his office asked the department if it should include a review of these issues in its report. But Skinner said the department did not find that necessary because it is conducting its own review.

"Our review included a determination of whether CBP followed its own criteria for prioritizing projects," the report said. "We did not evaluate the original process CBP used to establish its criteria or any underlying assumptions."

Homeland Security spokesman Sean Smith said the report shows that Customs and Border Protection "effectively and objectively" managed its stimulus projects. Smith also pointed to a section of the report that stated that the agency's spending plans for all of its projects were generally "practical, thorough and comprehensive."

Homeland Security has refused to release its internal priority list for renovating these checkpoints or its justifications for deviating from it. Officials say the final project list is all they need to make public.

Congress required the department to create a priority list in 2003, but the Obama administration and former Bush administration added its own subjective decision-making to the process, making it vulnerable to the political influence that Obama pledged to keep out of the stimulus.

After questions were raised about the spending decisions, customs officials briefed some members of Congress about the process.

Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said customs officials blamed the stimulus legislation for how the money was allocated. The law set aside $420 million for checkpoints owned by Customs and only $300 million for facilities owned by the General Services Administration, which are much larger and see significantly more traffic.

Bardella said that according to career customs officials who oversee the checkpoint renovations, "the way in which Congress and the administration crafted the stimulus legislation has 'hamstrung' the department."

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Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this report.

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