Immigration was a tentpole of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Utilizing racist and fear-mongering rhetoric, Trump demonized immigrants and rode a populist wave to an improbable victory. His solution to the ‘’scourge’’ of migrants crossing the southern US border? A wall to keep the so-called invaders out. Three years later the promise of a ‘’big, beautiful wall’’ has gone largely unfulfilled. To date roughly 85 miles of fencing have been erected during Trump’s tenure and almost exclusively where structures already existed. In an effort to make progress on the ’16 campaign promise in the run-up to the 2020 election the administration has announced 31 miles of new wall is slated for construction, with a projected end date of 12/20/20.
In November it was announced that Fisher Sand & Gravel had been awarded a $400 million contract to build the aforementioned stretch of wall. The North Dakota based company has earned similar sized government contracts in the past, but none had anything to do with walls or barriers. The company’s lack of experience in wall-building is not the only reason to question the merit or wisdom of their award.
Over the past 20 years, Fisher Sand and Gravel has been cited 16 times for environmental violations and paid penalties in excess of $450K. Seven times the company been fined for workplace safety infractions and incurred fines just shy of $50K. In 2011 the company was fined $150K by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for subjecting two female employees to ‘’egregious verbal sexual harassment’’ and firing one when she complained. Michael Fisher, the former head of the company, pled guilty to nine counts of felony tax fraud and received 37 months in federal prison. Fisher Sand and Gravel was able to defer prosecution against them by agreeing to $1.16 million in restitution and penalties with a promise to install safeguards against future fraud at the company. However it is not FSG’s checkered past raising eyebrows in Washington.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for contracts relating to the border barrier project. The agency solicits competitive bids to ensure meritorious award, free from insidious political influence. FSG was one of six applicants to build border wall prototypes in the San Diego area during 2017. Their concrete design lacked a transparent aesthetic desired by officials at the Department of Homeland Security. Fisher then pivoted to a steel design which the Army Corps said ‘’did not meet its standards and lacked regulatory approvals.’’ The agency added that FSG’s work was also late and over budget. Stymied by bureaucratic red tape, Fisher sued the government after their rejection. The case was dismissed, but the Army Corps added the company to a group of bids in response to pressure from the White House. It has been reported that Donald Trump has repeatedly intervened in the process to steer the contract at issue towards Fisher Sand & Gravel.
Government contracting is intended to be free from political influence to guarantee the best value for the American taxpayer and prevent any untoward favoritism. In this case the most logical inference is that strategic political influence was exerted to elicit such special treatment. It is highly irregular for a president to personally intervene in the award of a major government contract. According to administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, Trump has done that repeatedly on behalf of Fisher to leaders at the Department of Homeland Security and the Army Corps.
Tommy Fisher is the CEO of FSG. What he and his outfit lack in substance, he apparently compensates for with well-placed political donations and public appearances. He and his wife each gave $10K to new Republican Senator, Kevin Cramer, of North Dakota. Cramer in turn invited Fisher to Trump’s State of the Union address last year. Cramer has also been vocal publicly, and privately in advocating for FSG. Perhaps as significantly, Fisher has made numerous television appearances on the president’s favorite cable channel, FOX News. The television spots may as well have been direct pitches to Trump. Fisher has appeared on various FOX programs, speaking Trump’s language in full support of his agenda. For instance, he has claimed on air (without supporting evidence) that his company can build the wall ‘’faster, better and cheaper’’ than anyone else and likened his patented wall hanging technology (compared to the methods used by other builders) to the difference between an iPhone and a payphone. Even Fisher’s booster in the Senate, Cramer, acknowledges the link between his T.V. appearances and the wall contract, saying they may not have helped with the Army Corps, ‘’but certainly helped with the president.’’
Cramer is not insulated from any impropriety regarding the award. In August the Senator delayed confirmation of a White House budget official in an attempt to access privileged information about the border wall bidding process. When told the bids contained sensitive, proprietary information, Cramer demanded a meeting with the Lieutenant General who heads the Army Corps of Engineers. He subsequently released a statement vowing to hold the military engineers ‘’accountable’’ and added ‘’I believe we have their attention and are in a good position to succeed.’’ The latter quote implies that the freshman senator had a specific agenda in mind. Tommy Fisher is a constituent of Cramer’s, responsible for thousands of dollars into his campaign coffers. He’s publicly lauded Trump in his preferred news medium in a bombastic style familiar to the president. It is beyond any reasonable belief that these two factors are unrelated to Cramer’s promotion of FSG and Trump’s intervention in the bidding process.
Photo by Markus Spiske