Facing criticism for her handling of federal stimulus money, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that she would not start any new border construction projects and would review how her department selected projects that would get money.
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 be financed 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 Wednesday when a senior Senate Democrat, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, a border state, 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 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 in a telephone interview.
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.
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 pledged to keep out of the stimulus.
Two Montana Democratic senators, for instance, said they personally appealed to Napolitano to get money for lower-priority border projects. That includes a $15 million plan to build a station the size and cost of a Hollywood mansion at the sleepy Whitetail, Montana, border crossing.
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.
‘Not a smart investment’
Dorgan sits on the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, which helps control the purse strings for the federal government.
"We're deep in debt; we really do need to be smart about how we spend money," Dorgan said. "In my judgment, this is not a smart investment."