Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s efforts to secure the Texas-Mexico border also appear to have been a boon for private contractors. Under the governor’s ongoing disaster declaration, normal rules for government contracts have been suspended.
A new Houston Chronicle investigation found tens of millions of dollars have gone to staffing companies, technology firms and builders that did not go through an official bidding or solicitation process.
Chronicle investigative reporter Jay Root tells Texas Standard that the normal bidding process has been suspended, not only at the border but also because of the pandemic. And this emergency status seems to have become “perpetual.” Listen to the interview with Root in the audio player above or read the transcript below.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Texas Standard: What kinds of work contracts are we talking about here?
Jay Root: What we’re looking at largely are processing facilities – basically jails for migrants that are crossing the border and being apprehended on trespassing charges by the Texas Department of Public Safety. They had to go before a judge and be read their rights and told what they’re being charged with. And the county jails just don’t have the capacity for that.
So right now, we have these two processing centers, one in Del Rio and one in Hebbronville. All of this has a cost to it, whether it’s to build the facility, to get the phone lines, to get power; some of them run on generators. And all of this is being awarded on a noncompetitive basis.
What is the normal process for government contracts, when the border is not under a disaster declaration?
Basically, you would go with the lowest bidder. You would you would issue an RFP – request for proposal – that people would be able to publicly access, and then the vendors, would-be contractors, would respond to the RFP. They’d give their background, why they feel like they have a good company, and then the agency would have some kind of scoring procedure, and then they would go with the person who offered the best value for Texas. That’s not happening here.
Do we know exactly how much money is being spent on these projects?[The Houston Chronicle] looked just at one agency. We looked at the Texas Division of Emergency Management, which is handling not only these border emergency contracts, but that also handled a lot of COVID-era contracts. And there were hundreds of millions of dollars in COVID-era contracts, including for tests and testing services, and we found some overlap.
We found a company called Gothams LLC that got hundreds of millions of dollars for a test that turned out to be problematic. That ended up getting revoked by the FDA at the request of the company because there were problems with the reliability of the test. Well, one of the companies that was selling Texas these tests is now one of the major border contractors. And again, all no-bid, no-solicitation – no formal solicitation.
Now the agency says, well, we’re getting proposals from other companies, but there there’s no requirement for them to go with the lowest bidder; they can pick whoever they want.
How is the state paying for these projects?
A lot of the COVID emergency money has been federal money, but the border money is your hard-earned state – I mean, all of its tax dollars ultimately, right? But the COVID money has largely been federal dollars. But the hard-working taxpayers of Texas are paying for the border outlays that are being awarded on this noncompetitive, no-bid basis.
Is the concern that because the state’s in a hurry to get border projects done, we’re paying too much for these contracts that otherwise would have had more scrutiny?
Yeah, I think that’s the worry that you hear from the critics – some of the critics that we quoted. And also that there’s this perpetual emergency. See, this emergency order has to be renewed every 30 days, so the governor has been renewing the border emergency every 30 days, and then he’s been renewing the COVID emergency order every 30 days. That one’s been going on for more than two years.
And so what some of the critics that we quoted in our story told us is we knew we were going to be spending money on the border. We know people are going to be crossing the border illegally. If we decided in the legislative process a deliberative process to spend money on this, why can’t we have all of the safeguards that we normally have and introduce a solicitation process that will ensure that taxpayers are getting the most for their money? And this comes at a time when they’re sort of scrounging for every available dollar because they’ve gone over budget on this border spending.