Napolitano halts border projects, orders review
Senator criticizes agency’s use of stimulus funds
WASHINGTON - Facing criticism for her handling of stimulus money, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said yesterday that she would not start any new border construction projects while the department reviewed how projects were selected.
Napolitano has faced questions since the Associated Press reported last month that Homeland Security officials did not follow their internal priority lists when choosing which border checkpoints would get money for renovations. Under a process that is secretive and susceptible to political influence, officials planned to spend millions at tiny checkpoints, passing over busier, higher-priority projects.
The criticism peaked yesterday when a senior Senate Democrat, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, said that, despite Napolitano’s assurances, he felt Homeland Security was treating the economic stimulus plan like a “bottomless pit’’ of taxpayer money. It was unusually pointed criticism from a member of the president’s own party about how the administration is handling economic recovery spending.
“There’s no common sense at all to a requirement that says you’ve got to put up a $15 million facility for a small port of entry that’s host to about five vehicles an hour,’’ Dorgan, whose state stood to receive $128 million for checkpoint improvements, said.
Within hours, Napolitano promised not to begin any new border construction projects and set up a 30-day review of how the projects were selected.
“At the end of that review, I will make all information, not involving national security concerns, public,’’ Napolitano wrote in a letter to Dorgan.
So far, Homeland Security has refused to release its internal priority list or its justifications for deviating from it. Instead, officials say the final project list is all they need to make public.
While the review may disclose information about the selection process, it appears unlikely to change much. That’s because Homeland Security has already signed many construction contracts, including low-priority projects such as the $15 million renovation for the sleepy border checkpoint at Whitetail, Mont.
Congress required the department to create a priority list in 2003 but the Obama administration added its own subjective decision-making to the process, making it vulnerable to the political influence that Obama vowed to keep out of the stimulus.
Two Montana Democratic senators, for instance, said they appealed to Napolitano to get money for lower-priority border projects. That includes the Whitetail plan, which will build a checkpoint the size and cost of a Hollywood mansion at a crossing that serves three travelers a day.
Napolitano defended those decisions in her letter, saying northern border stations could be repaired for a fraction of the cost of busier checkpoints. But she said the department would review those decisions.
“Americans should have confidence in the objectivity and openness with which Recovery funds are spent and the Department of Homeland Security is committed to upholding this responsibility,’’ Napolitano wrote.
Dorgan sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.