Thursday, August 27, 2009
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Thursday that politics did not influence the decision to spend millions of dollars in stimulus money on little-used border checkpoints while passing over higher-priority projects.
Members of Congress have asked for answers after The Associated Press showed that the Obama administration did not follow its internal priority list when handing out money to repair border stations nationwide.
Two Montana senators have taken credit for securing money for projects in their state, including $15 million for a border crossing that sees three travelers a day. Democratic Sen. John Tester said he and colleague Max Baucus personally appealed to Napolitano to make that and other Montana projects happen.
At a Dallas news conference Thursday, Napolitano said the AP story "was just wrong and I'll say that because there was no kind of political issues involved there."
Napolitano did not say what was incorrect about the story and the department has not asked for a correction.
The AP reviewed the department's priority list, which showed that some low-priority projects were being funded ahead of more pressing needs. On Thursday, the AP renewed its request for the department to release its justification for deviating from the list, which Congress requires to be updated annually.
A House oversight committee has added the checkpoint projects to its investigation into how the stimulus money is being spent. The top Republican on that committee, California's Rep. Darrell Issa, sent Napolitano a letter Wednesday, questioning why some projects leapfrogged others.
In promoting the stimulus, Obama banned "earmarks," which lawmakers routinely slip into bills to pay for pet projects, and he told agencies to "develop transparent, merit-based selection criteria" for spending.
But Customs and Border Protection, which sets the priorities for all border station projects nationwide, said it would not provide the priority list. Officials said the list was just a starting point and would be too easily misunderstood. Officials said they could select projects out of order for any number of reasons.
Napolitano has acknowledged that politicians can influence an administration's spending plans. A busy border station in her home state, for instance, was ranked No. 34 on the master priority list. But as governor of Arizona, she lobbied hard to get it at the top of the Bush administration's spending plan.
Under the stimulus, the Nogales, Ariz., checkpoint will receive $199 million, five times more than any other project.
"I cannot claim credit totally for the $200 million for Nogales," Napolitano said in April, adding, "The governor of Arizona may have had something to do with it, but the secretary did not."
CBP officials provided justifications for some but not all of the projects that were funded out of order. They would not address what role Tester and Baucus played in securing $15 million for a border station in the sleepy town of Whitetail, Mt., the size and cost of a Hollywood mansion.
Nor have they addressed another why the Westhope, N.D., checkpoint, which serves about 73 people a day and is among the lowest-priority projects, is set to get nearly $15 million for renovations.
Associated Press writer Matt Apuzzo contributed to this story from Washington.