BISMARCK — A federal probe into a lucrative bid to build a section of former President Donald Trump's border wall concluded that agency officials acted properly in their decision to award the contract to a Dickinson-based construction company, even as administration attorneys limited some key testimony on the extent of political influence.
The Department of Defense's Office of Inspector General released Monday, Nov. 15, its investigation into a $400 million contract for Fisher Sand and Gravel to build a 31-mile stretch of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. It detailed numerous meetings and messages from North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer in which he touted the company to high-ranking officials in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The report determined that advocacy by the first-term senator did not improperly sway the Army Corps’ eventual decision to award the contract to Fisher.
The nearly two-year investigation lands after Cramer, in particular, came under scrutiny for publicly trumpeting Fisher Sand and Gravel, whose CEO is one of his 2018 campaign donors, Tommy Fisher. Cramer at one point held up the confirmation of a White House budget official in order to obtain information on the border wall contracts from the Army Corps, the Washington Post reported in 2019.
Drawing on emails and interviews with U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials, the Inspector General’s report determined that decision-makers on the border wall contract were not influenced by the correspondences and meetings with elected Republicans, including both North Dakota senators and Trump. Instead, the investigation found the Army Corps selected Fisher Sand and Gravel because the company offered the most competitive price to do the job.
Cramer lauded the Inspector General’s findings on Monday and argued that the investigation, which was launched at the request of the Democratic-controlled U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security, vindicated his actions in the face of political and media fire.
“This complete and total exoneration is a long time coming from this worthless, partisan fishing expedition,” Cramer said in a statement. “House Democrats wasted taxpayer time and money while the Biden Administration is actively ignoring a crisis of their own doing at the Southern border.”
The report also noted advocacy on behalf of the company by North Dakota Sen. John Hoeven, whose office said in a statement that he took no steps beyond the usual for any other constituent.
Still, one expert in federal procurement law argued that crucial aspects not detailed in the report were as telling as its bottom line conclusion.
The Inspector General’s report includes the caveat the investigators were not able to get answers to certain questions about the role played in the bid by Trump, who discussed the company in a 2019 appearance on Fox News, because administration attorneys attended interviews with Army Corps officials and instructed many of them not to speak on correspondence from the White House.
The report noted the Office of Inspector General could not corroborate certain claims since it was barred from answering some questions, though it also said investigators reviewed the emails of key Army Corps officials and found no evidence there of “undue influence."
“Although the packaging says, ‘We conclude no undue influence,’ when you get down to the details, there’s a lot of, 'We were not able to verify,' because the White House wouldn’t let people answer questions,” said Joshua Schwartz, a professor of government contracts law at George Washington University Law School. “When people don’t want to answer questions, there’s a good chance that they have something to hide.”
Schwartz said the omissions of the report have stronger implications for Trump's potential influence than for the North Dakota senators', but added there may have been closed-door decisions made in Fisher's favor that weren't necessarily illegal. Even if there was a mixture of bureaucratic "shoddiness" and political influence, it's unlikely that the public is ever going to know, he said.
Former Army Corps Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite, who served as the agency’s top official under Trump, told investigators with the Office of Inspector General that Cramer was “a very strong advocate” for Fisher Sand and Gravel and always brought the company up during their meetings, though he attested that the senator never asked the agency to award the Dickinson company, only that he encouraged the agency to consider them.
Cramer argued for Fisher because he seemed to believe that the company would be the quickest, most affordable option for taxpayers, Semonite told investigators.
The report documents numerous meetings and exchanges between Cramer and the former top Army Corps officials in 2019, as well as two discussions that year between Cramer and Trump about Fisher.
Semonite told the Inspector General's office that he briefed his team on the meetings with Cramer but told them not to base their contracting decision on political or media influences. Numerous lower-ranking Army Corps officials who worked directly on the border wall bid process told investigators under oath that they had not corresponded with Cramer or other members of Congress.
In total, Fisher Sand and Gravel nabbed more than $2 billion in federal contracts for constructing stretches of the border wall during the Trump administration. The initial $400 million bid investigated by the Department of Defense was for a portion in Yuma County, Arizona.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.