As Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite told White House reporters on Monday that “the virus gets a vote,” President Donald Trump interrupted to ask him about an urgent priority amidst the novel coronavirus outbreak: the southern border wall.
“There are several different priorities here,” pivoted Semonite, the head of the Army Corps of Engineers. Alongside building emergency hospital space for coronavirus is “a very aggressive build” on the border, where “our contractors are extremely focused.”
Semonite told the truth. Last Wednesday, while the country strained under a nationwide lockdown, Semonite’s corps found time to award another border-wall contract to a company Trump personally championed—even as it’s under investigation by the Defense Department inspector general. Specifically, Fisher on Apr. 15 got $7,633,085 to build a mere “800 linear feet” of bollard barrier—that slatted design Trump favors—for the wall in Yuma, Ariz.
That company is the MAGA-friendly Fisher Sand & Gravel of North Dakota, whose leading figure sings the praises of the wall on Trump’s favorite programs. Last December, after Fisher finally won a $400 million border contract, something the House Homeland Security Committee chairman blasted as egregious, the Pentagon IG opened an ongoing audit of the contract over what amounts to corruption.
“While the country is wrapped up in the current health crisis, the Trump administration is bulldozing piles of cash to border wall contractors.”
— Project on Government Oversight’s Scott Amey
“While favoritism in federal contracting is prohibited, Fisher seems to be favored by President Trump and others inside the Defense Department, despite a questionable track record and past experience history,” said Scott Amey of the Project on Government Oversight. “The Army might want to wait to throw more money at Fisher until the IG finishes its audit and we have a better understanding of whether its original $400 million award was legitimate.”
Fisher’s contract is only the latest border-wall windfall the Army Corps of Engineers has doled out while it’s supposed to be focused on combating the novel coronavirus. Since Feb. 25, when a senior Centers for Disease Control and Prevention official warned that the spread of the novel coronavirus in American communities was “more a question of exactly when this will happen and how many people in this country will have severe illness,” the Army’s engineering arm has awarded at least $1.3 billion in wall contracts. That’s big money that won’t go to building impromptu hospitals, manufacturing ventilators, procuring respirator masks or ensuring the safe distribution of other equipment needed by medical professionals trying to stem the tide of COVID-19. If the virus gets a vote, the Army’s wall contracting is the electoral college, providing a thumb on the scale in the virus’ favor.
Last year, Fisher Sand & Gravel’s president, GOP donor Tommy Fisher, appealed to Trump for a wall contract via appearances on Fox News. One of Fisher’s selling points is that his company can do the work cheaply. On Laura Ingraham’s show, Fisher compared his company to Tom Brady. “Once we get in, we never come out, and if we don’t perform, the president can fire us,” Fisher promised. Trump personally urged Army and Department of Homeland Security officials to steer the $400 million contract Fisher’s way. Its Army contract finally came through in December.
But the Democratic chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-MS), noted that Fisher Sand & Gravel didn’t “meet the operational requirements of U.S. Customs and Border Protection and its prototype project came in late and over budget.” A letter Thompson wrote in December warned of “inappropriate influence” by the president over the contract. That letter prompted the inspector general’s audit.
Dwrena Allen, a spokesperson for the Pentagon inspector general, confirmed that the audit of Fisher’s contract is ongoing. Allen declined to comment on the propriety of awarding a firm under investigation additional money on the same contract.
Thompson told The Daily Beast that the Army needed to focus on its COVID-19 response, not the border wall.
“Last time I checked, the inspector general has not yet determined if the December 2019 Fisher contract was properly awarded and the country is still facing a pandemic and largely under lockdown,” Thompson said. “The Army Corps should pause construction and contracting decisions until the investigation is complete and it is safe to resume non-essential construction projects. Army Corps resources should be put to better use responding to the coronavirus pandemic we are still facing.”
Representatives for Fisher did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Over the past two weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers has accelerated contract awards and other projects that directly relate to COVID-19. Several firms, including AECOM Technical Services Inc of Los Angeles and Bulley & Andrews of Chicago, received contracts to transition existing infrastructure into “alternate care facilities” to free up civilian hospitals for coronavirus patients. Ten firms will share in a coronavirus-response contract with the Corps of Engineers currently worth $1.67 billion. Yet that follows weeks of a wall-building spending spree worth nearly that much.
Although the Army was willing last week to comment on Army Corps of Engineers contracting matters, a spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers said The Daily Beast would need to file a Freedom of Information Act request for basic, unclassified information about its border-wall contracts since late February.
When asked about awarding Fisher a contract despite the inspector-general inquiry, spokesperson Raini Brunson said, “USACE does not comment on matters pertaining to ongoing investigations.”
And it’s not only Fisher getting wall contracts from the Army Corps of Engineers while the corps is tasked with confronting the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Last week, The Daily Beast reported that another GOP contributor, BFBC of Montana, got $569 million to build 17 miles of the border wall. After the report, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee said the Government Accountability Office had agreed to investigate the award. “The contracting process should be merit-based and free from political influence and corruption,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI).
But the BFBC contract is just one component of what adds up to at least $1.3 billion in wall funding since late February, the time when coronavirus upended American life.
Most substantially, Southwest Valley contractors got $524 million on Mar. 23 for modifications to the Tucson section of the wall. That was days after Trump first invoked the Defense Production Act to compel production of pandemic-relevant material. And it followed a Feb. 28 award to Southwest Valley worth $175 million for work on the wall in Texas.
Another firm, SLSCO, got $61 million on Apr. 3 for work on the wall in New Mexico, something that came out of the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance budget, rather than the military construction funds previously known to have been raided for wall construction. And BFBC got $12,613,244 more on Mar. 9 for work on the Yuma section of the wall.
Members of the Fisher family, which controls their eponymous company, have donated copiously to GOP officials, though largely since 2018. Second-generation company patriarch Tommy has donated $5,400 to Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND)—who hosted his donor as his guest at the 2018 State of the Union—$5,400 to unsuccessful Arizona GOP House candidate Steve Ferrera, $5,400 to Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), $5,000 to Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-ND), $4,200 to Rep. Debbie Lesko (R-AZ), and $2,700 to Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) in the past two years.
The Fishers’ political largesse is hardly unique among border wall builders. Southwest Valley Constructors is a subsidiary of Omaha, Nebraska-based contracting colossus Kiewit. The firm’s massive staff has contributed to both Republican and Democratic candidates, but its executive brass have focused their donations on the GOP. Their gifts to the Republican Congressional Leadership Fund, National Republican Congressional Committee, National Republican Senatorial Committee, and various red members of the House and Senate in the past four years have well exceeded $100,000.
“The Army might want to wait to throw more money at Fisher until the Inspector General finishes its audit and we have a better understanding of whether its original $400 million award was legitimate.”
— Scott Amey
SLSCO, an affiliate of Galveston, Texas-based Sullivan Interests, also has GOP-friendly corporate leadership. Company president Todd Sullivan gave $2,800 a piece to Rep. Randy Weber (R-TX) and Rep. Bruce Babin (R-TX) in 2019, and kicked an equal amount this February to aspiring Republican representative Wesley Hunt. He also gave $1,666.66 to Weber’s Building American Conservatism PAC last year—almost identical to the $1,666.67 his brother, company principal William Sullivan, gave BAC PAC on the same day. Further, third brother and vice president John Sullivan forked over $2,000 to Babin and $1,000 to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in 2019.
Representatives for Southwest Valley and SLSCO did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
“While the country is wrapped up in the current health crisis, the Trump administration is bulldozing piles of cash to border wall contractors. Money that could be repurposed to support the health crisis is instead being used to build the wall at a dizzying rate in early 2020,” said the Project on Government Oversight’s Amey. “While money might be available, it’s absurd to think that this spending is to make good on a 2016 campaign promise and to brag this fall about the miles of wall that have been built.”