Contractors Under Scrutiny as Property Owners Resist Land Takings
The construction of a border wall remains the great obsession of the President and the resounding symbol of his reelection effort. In recent weeks it was announced that the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would drive the project forward, yet recent developments have made clear how difficult he is finding it to deliver on Trump’s signature policy – the border wall Trump has personally autographed.
This week, a federal judge blocked the President’s illegal diversion of $3.6 billion in funds appropriated for the Department of Defense to construct the wall, and, while details are scant at this writing, next week’s spending bill to keep the government open beyond Dec. 20 is not likely to contain the spending the President demands for wall construction. This could trigger a standoff and a government shutdown, which proved enormously damaging to the President when he demanded a partial government shutdown last year.
Today’s news illustrates new obstacles to Trump’s efforts to build the wall worth noting. Today’s Wall Street Journal reports that taking property from landowners along the border is proving difficult, while the Journal and other outlets are reporting that Congress is demanding a review of how a $400 million contract was awarded for wall construction to a development firm owned by a campaign donor favored and promoted by the President.
In an article headlined, “Construction of Texas Border Wall Stalls Over Fights With Landowners,” the Journal’s Elizabeth Findell reports that there has been resistance from the Catholic Church and others along the border to the appropriation of land for the President’s construction project.
The resistance in South Texas, where most land is privately owned, illustrates the challenges in building a border wall, even if funding is available.
… About 200 miles southeast, in the Rio Grande Valley, refusals have led the government to sue 46 landowners for the right to survey their property in preparation for acquiring part of it, including farmers, ranchers, businesses, and several facilities owned by a Catholic diocese.
… While Texans are split evenly on whether they support or oppose Mr. Trump’s border wall, those in counties along the border oppose it 54% to 40%, according to a Quinnipiac survey of voters earlier this year.
… The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows private property to be “taken for public use,” provided “just compensation” is paid. Its power has been used to help establish parks, clear land for highways and railways, and construct public buildings.
Efrén Olivares, an attorney representing landowners in five open eminent-domain cases, said courts tend to defer to national-security arguments in such cases. Judges may adjust the amount of compensation landowners get, he said.
Judges deciding eminent-domain cases typically try to determine the property’s fair-market value, which can be tricky if a parcel is unique or sales of comparable properties aren’t available.
Some plaintiffs will simply fight to keep their land “until the day they die” Mr. Olivares said, in an effort to run out the clock on a Trump presidency and hope his successor changes course. …
Meanwhile, as the Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reports (among others), there will be a formal review of how a $400 million U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contract was awarded to Fisher Sand & Gravel Co., a North Dakota firm the President personally advocated for that is owned by a prominent campaign donor.
The Defense Department’s inspector general’s office will audit a $400 million border wall contract that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers awarded to a North Dakota construction company run by a GOP donor whom President Trump repeatedly urged military officials to hire.
Glenn A. Fine, the top official at the Pentagon office, authorized a review of the contract in response to a Dec. 4 letter from Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, asking inspectors to take a closer look. Fine informed Thompson of the audit in a letter Thursday.
“You raised concerns about the possibility of inappropriate influence on USACE’s contracting decision, and questioned whether the bid submitted by Fisher Sand and Gravel Co. met solicitation standards,” Fine wrote in his letter to Thompson. “You also questioned whether USACE made the award in accordance with federal procurement law and regulations.
“In response to your request, we have decided to initiate an audit of the solicitation and award of this contract. We are assessing the methodology of that audit and will formally announce the audit soon.”
On Dec. 2, the Pentagon announced a contract worth up to $400 million to Fisher Sand and Gravel for the construction of 31 miles of new border barriers along the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in southern Arizona.
After its previous bids on projects for the border barrier were passed by the Army Corps, Tommy Fisher, the company’s chief executive, launched an aggressive public and private campaign to win a contract. He made several appearances on Fox News promoting the superiority of his company, while Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) personally lobbied the president to hire Fisher while accusing the Army Corps of unfairly excluding the firm. Fisher donated to Cramer’s Senate campaign, appeared with Cramer on the campaign trail and was Cramer’s guest at Trump’s State of the Union address earlier this year.
Fisher has paid lobbying firm Odney more than $100,000 since 2017 during its push to secure border wall contacts, disclosure records show. The company also has partnered with right-wing activist group We Build the Wall to construct fencing on private land with millions of dollars raised through online donations.
The group is led by several prominent GOP figures: ex-Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon is chairman of the group’s advisory board, and its general counsel is immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach, Kansas’s former secretary of state. Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince is also a board member, along with former Major League Baseball pitcher Curt Schilling.
According to Douglas Rivlin, Director of Communication for America’s Voice:
The President is breaking out all of his dirty tricks in order to fulfill his obsession to build a wall that won’t work. Thus far, Trump put his son-in-law in charge to oversee a vast real estate land grab from hundreds of private citizens living on the border; campaign donors and cronies are being rewarded with a $400 million contract, and he has diverted billions from military bases and families.
This is the same wall that Mexico was going to pay for and now he is sticking the American taxpayer with the tab. It comes down to a fundamental problem for the President: building the wall is unpopular and it is especially unpopular along the border where private property rights and delicate habitat are in conflict with the President’s desire to build his monument to himself.
Oversight from Congress, Inspectors General and the courts are the only things keeping this President’s obsession with wall construction in check. As we have said previously, the real test for the President will be if he sends his New York developer son-in-law down to confront landowners himself to stand face to face with those who know the border and know how destructive and useless the wall will be.