The Washington Post reported Monday night that the Pentagon had awarded a $400 million border wall contract to a North Dakota company named Fisher Sand and Gravel. That contract, to build a segment of the wall across a wildlife refuge in Yuma County, Arizona, raised some eyebrows. According to the Post:
Trump has repeatedly pushed for Fisher to get a wall-building contract, urging officials with the Army Corps of Engineers to pick the firm—only to be told that Fisher’s bids did not meet standards. Trump’s entreaties on behalf of the company have concerned some officials who are unaccustomed to a president getting personally involved in the intricacies of government contracting.
This isn’t the way it normally goes, but President Trump isn’t one to have his plans vetted by ethics watchdogs. Here’s how this incident played out as it did.
How did Trump get involved?
At first glance, his pressure campaign might look like a standard-issue favor for a deep-pocketed donor. Tommy Fisher, the company’s CEO, and his wife have supported North Dakota’s Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer, and Cramer pushed hard for the award to go to Fisher’s company.
But Trump’s support can be won in more unusual ways. As Philip Bump noted in the Post, it’s clear that Fisher’s bid got a boost from his lobbying via Trump’s favorite medium: Fox News. Fisher appeared on the channel several times in March and April. In one instance, a Fox News program covered his company in a segment that was cited the next morning on “Fox and Friends.”
In April, after those appearances, Sean Hannity asked Trump if he “heard about this contractor that said he can build a whole wall for a lot cheaper than anybody else and get it done by 2020.” Trump replied that he had. He named Fisher directly, said that “we are dealing with him,” and noted that Fisher’s company came “recommended strongly” by Cramer.
By May, the Post had reported that Trump was “aggressively” pushing behind the scenes to have Fisher Industries chosen for the contract. Cramer told the paper that the president liked Fisher because of his appearance on Fox News. “You know who else watches Fox News?” Cramer asked.
As a result, then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said in the spring that Fisher could bid for the contract, despite the concerns of Army Corps and DHS officials that Trump was improperly influencing what is designed to be an impartial process.
What are the company’s qualifications?
Fisher was one of six companies that built prototype border walls in 2017. The Army Corps, which is charged with contracting out the border barrier project, said the design didn’t meet its requirements.
Fisher later claimed publicly that the company had a new design with an installation method that outstripped all its competitors’ in terms of speed and cost. But the Army Corps again said it did not meet requirements, and that the design lacked regulatory approval. The DHS also warned the Army Corps that Fisher had done a project that had gone over budget and missed its deadline.
But Fisher didn’t give up there: The company sued the government on April 25, alleging improper behavior in the contracting process. And the company began building a privately funded section of fencing in New Mexico, claiming that the private fence would prove to Trump the truth of Fisher’s claims.
Concerns about the company go beyond recent shoddy work, though. Tommy Fisher and his brother Michael were accused of billing personal expenses to the company, allegedly for decades. Michael was convicted of tax fraud in 2009. Tommy was also implicated in the report, but he was not charged with a crime.
As the Grand Forks Herald reported, the court documents alleged Tommy and Michael “thumbed their noses at the federal government” when the IRS audited Fisher Sand and Gravel and flagged suspicious behavior.
The company over the years has been hit with fines for pollution and other environmental infractions. A federal sexual harassment suit also claimed the company “subjected two women workers to egregious verbal sexual harassment by a supervisor and then fired one of them after she repeatedly asked the supervisor to stop harassing her.”
Those issues—not aided by Tommy and Michael’s brother David being convicted in 2005 on federal child pornography charges—lost the company some of its government business. (The company told the Herald that David had not been affiliated with it since 2003 and that the company had resolved its environmental issues).
Can Trump really do this?
It seems so. There’s no absolute proof (so far, at least) that Trump ordered the multi-million contract go to a Republican donor and Fox News sycophant he favored. It’s still possible, after all, that Fisher Industries did modify its proposal, and that the Army Corps found it to be the strongest bid. Besides, the president has shown again and again that he can wave away accusations of corruption with a simple excuse and go unchecked by Congress.
It does seem possible that Trump truly believed Fisher’s company would make the wall faster and cheaper. The president has a habit of staking positions unsupported by any evidence beyond what he sees on his television.