Updated: 10:35 p.m. Thursday, March 15, 2012
Published: 10:28 p.m. Thursday, March 15, 2012
A little-known private defense contractor from Virginia has quietly received about $20 million under a series of no-bid contracts with the State of Texas to develop its border security strategies, an effort that included shaping the state’s public message on the increasingly controversial nature and extent of violence spilling into Texas from Mexico.
According to an internal Department of Public Safety memo, the role of Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. expanded dramatically after Gov. Rick Perry, then in the midst of a campaign for governor, ordered an acceleration of border security operations that the state wasn’t equipped to handle on its own.
Over the next 4 1/2 years — ALIS, founded in 2004 by retired Army Gen. John Abrams — would become intimately involved in nearly every aspect of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s border security apparatus, according to documents obtained by the American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act. Its assignments ranged from refining the state’s Operation Border Star campaign and coordinating the role of National Guard troops along the border, to setting up the state’s joint intelligence support centers and creating a multimillion-dollar high-tech system to map border crime.
Despite the firm’s work on the state’s most important border operations, ALIS flew so far under the radar that outside of law enforcement, few state and local leaders knew of its activities. Several officials who have worked closely on border security issues said they had no knowledge of the firm until contacted by the Statesman.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said he plans to call for an investigation into the state’s relationship with ALIS, saying that the state had outsourced vital security operations to a firm with “less accountability and less transparency than I would expect from state agencies.”
Even a keen observer of the Department of Public Safety could easily have been unaware of the contractor. Despite more than half a dozen contracts totalling $19.2 million, according to the Texas comptroller’s office, a review of the minutes and agendas of the state’s Public Safety Commission meetings between 2006 and 2011 revealed no public discussion about the firm’s role and only passing references to the firm’s contracts.
Department policy did not require contracts such as those with ALIS to be presented to the commission until September 2009, according to DPS officials.
Nor does the website of the Legislative Budget Board, the only agency charged with gathering information on state contracts, reveal the extent of the ALIS role; it shows just two contracts worth $2.1 million.
The outsourcing also raises questions regarding DPS’s contract procedures. The DPS awarded the initial ALIS contracts on an emergency basis, saying there wasn’t time to solicit bids from other vendors. The DPS then extended the emergency contracts through a state procurement system that is more often used to purchase goods and commodities from a list of pre-qualified vendors, bypassing the bidding process.
The state auditor’s office, while not specifically targeting the Abrams contracts, has reprimanded DPS for its frequent use of emergency contracts and failure to solicit bids as required by state and federal rules.
Doubts about status
Why was the DPS moved to declare border security planning an emergency?
A June 2006 memo from Jack Colley, who was chief of the DPS Division of Emergency Management at the time, spells out the reasons: “The governor directed expanded state and local border security to begin quickly and before any contracting process could begin,” wrote Colley, who died in 2010. Colley added that the state lacked the staff, expertise and technology to coordinate the security operations called for by Perry.
Perry’s call for increased border operations came during a gubernatorial election in which the issue of border security played a central role in Perry’s campaign. Perry’s first campaign ad in the 2006 general election touted the state’s border security efforts, but made no mention of the private firm at the controls.
By 2008, at least some within DPS believed it was a bad idea — and too expensive — to give private contractors such responsibility over border security operations. In the agency’s 2008 budget request to the Legislature, DPS asked for money to hire 19 state employees to replace the contract workers then staffing the border security operations and joint intelligence centers.
“It is more desirable and more cost effective to have state employees planning, coordinating, and evaluating joint state-local border security operations that involve more than $100 million in state appropriated funds,” the document says.
Instead, the following year, Abrams received a $4.2 million contract in part to staff and provide “leadership” to the Border Security Operations Center, where it would produce plans, analyses and “decision support tools for Texas leadership.”
That same year, 2009, the ALIS contract came under the purview of the Texas Rangers. By the next year, it was discontinued — because, officials said, the state could do the work itself for less money.
“The contract was coming to an end and when I looked at what (ALIS) was doing, I promoted people within the division to do the same jobs. It was more cost effective to do it ourselves,” said former Ranger chief Tony Leal, who left the Rangers last year and now is a vice president for a Houston rubber company. “When (ALIS) first came in, they offered a service to do something that the state was not doing at that time. Over time we developed the expertise to do it ourselves.”
High-ranking DPS officials had been aware for some time of the issues with emergency contracts.
In January 2010, DPS Director Steven McCraw told commissioners: “There’s a tendency toward everything being an emergency. We recognize that’s not the way to do business. We need to plan ahead.”
But seven months later, DPS gave Abrams another emergency, no-bid contract, worth $1.4 million, in part to shape the state’s public message on border security.
Controlling the message
As much as the Texas-Mexico border has been a battlefield between drug cartels and law enforcement, so too has it been a battlefield over public perception of what’s been dubbed spillover violence. At stake: the allocation of millions of federal and state dollars, which observers say very much depends on who controls the public message.
This fight has largely pitted state Republicans and some law enforcement officials, who portray the Texas border as a war zone, against border politicians and President Barack Obama’s administration, who point to the overall decline in the border’s violent crime rate and maintain it is among the safest areas of the country.
A 2011 American-Statesman analysis of five years of crime statistics in border counties revealed over-simplification by both sides. While many counties across from the worst Mexican violence showed notable crime decreases, other areas have seen crime rates soar in conjunction with drug violence in Mexico (El Paso, long held up as a paragon of the safe border city, saw aggravated assault rates increase 26 percent since 2006.)
State politicians, notably Perry in his successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign and failed presidential bid, have campaigned vigorously on a platform of increased border security and the notion that the federal government has failed to adequately guard the border.
In August 2010, the DPS enlisted Abrams to develop a public and media outreach strategy to “position Texas border security efforts in a positive light,” paying the firm to develop talking points, presentations, testimony and the “orientation” of senior government leaders. Abrams created a public relations campaign featuring 36 principal messages, including “The success of Texas border security and law enforcement efforts are critical to preserving you and your family’s safety and way of life” and “Border Security is a Federal Responsibility but a Texas problem” — the exact language contained in an earlier Perry speech and a common refrain during Perry’s presidential campaign.
A draft document obtained by the American-Statesman, titled “Border Security Public Outreach Themes and Messages,” includes talking points that would seem to boost the firm’s standing. In touting Operation Border Star, the state’s principal border security strategy, the document says that law enforcement agencies “join with private companies” to “reduce border-related crime.” The messages were meant to be used by the agency’s public information department and to guide agency interactions with the media.
DPS officials say they contracted with ALIS on media outreach because they wanted the public to know about Mexican cartels recruiting Texas students to carry drugs and other threats such as smuggling operations and public corruption.
Rodriguez said he thinks ALIS’s public information work represented a conflict of interest. “They are giving talking points to officials so they can make the case for more public money for border security, which they can then use to pay for more contracts,” Rodriguez said. “(ALIS) was doing this to make themselves more relevant.”
Law enforcement officials along the border say the firm brought a military sensibility to border operations, supporting “surges” of local and state law enforcement and helping to form Texas Ranger Reconnaissance teams, units that operate along remote areas of the border. ALIS also helped to set up joint intelligence centers in cities along the border, where military-style “joint” commands of local, state and federal law enforcement come together.
Don Reay, the head of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition, said that ALIS initially butted heads with some border sheriffs. “It was more of a military approach, and some things need more local input,” Reay said, adding that in subsequent years the firm accepted more input from local officials. “The strength of the ALIS contract is that it allowed (DPS) to access former military personnel with expertise in a variety of areas critical to defending and securing terrain,” said DPS spokesman Tom Vinger.
Abrams, a retired four-star general, headed the Army’s training and doctrine command until 2002. After his retirement he became a military analyst for The Associated Press, joining a growing number of retired generals providing paid commentary on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for media outlets.
And like several fellow generals, Abrams went on to create a consulting company to compete for government contracts, mostly in the realm of homeland security. Since its founding in 2004, Abrams Learning and Information Systems has received a number of state and federal contracts, including a $701,597 contract in 2011 with Abrams’ former training and doctrine command. According to its website, the company specializes in management and technology work related to homeland security.
Abrams is not the only retired general to receive a border security contract from the State of Texas: Last year, DPS and the Agriculture Department hired retired Gens. Barry McCaffrey and Robert Scales to produce an $80,000 report that declared spillover violence was occurring at alarming levels and that Texas border counties had become a “war zone.” Though it never mentioned the contractor by name, the report effusively praised the state’s border security infrastructure, much of it designed by ALIS, and called it a “model” for the federal government and the nation’s three other border states.
The amount of money Abrams earned from the state also was a source of some discontent among border law enforcement officials. “I’m not for or against Abrams, but I would rather see money going to boots on the ground to make our communities safer,” Reay said.
Laredo Mayor Raul Salinas said he was stunned to learn the private contractor had received $20 million from the state. According to a state auditor’s report, that represents a quarter of all state money spent on border security between 2005 and 2008 (in more recent years, border security funding has increased sharply). The firm’s federal contract price schedule lists wages for company employees that range from $39.54 an hour for a support specialist to $233.52 an hour for a subject matter expert.
“I hope state money was not being used to propagandize,” Salinas said.
A larger role
The firm’s role grew increasingly complex after it received its first contract in March 2006. That contract, along with several subsequent contracts, was an emergency procurement, which means it was not put out for competitive bids.
That first $471,898 contract called on Abrams to assist the state in setting up the Border Security Operations Center, the state’s Austin-based nerve center for border security efforts. After Perry instructed DPS to redouble its border security efforts, Abrams got a second emergency contract, valued at $679,676, three months later.
That contract vastly increased the firm’s responsibilities, which included developing a statewide border security plan; the National Guard’s mission along the border; a Web-based border surveillance camera program; and the concept for Operation Wrangler, a high-profile “rolling surge” of state and local law enforcement along the border.
The company received a series of contract extensionsbefore landing its largest single contractin August 2009 for $4.2 million. It assigned ALIS responsibility for developing the state’s 2010-2015 Homeland Security Strategic Plan and TXMap, a Web-based map of border incidents and arrests by various agencies.
Despite DPS rules enacted the previous October that required contracts of more than $1 million to be presented to the Public Safety Commission, it was not. DPS officials say the rules didn’t go into effect for such contracts until the following month. Nor was the contract — or any other contract between DPS and ALIS — put out for competitive bidding, according to DPS.
After its initial contract, ALIS became an authorized state vendor under the Texas Multiple Award Schedule, in which state agencies can contract with preferred firms without soliciting bids.
ALIS’s public and media outreach duties came in the form of another DPS emergency contract totalling $1.45 million over four months’ time. In an internal memo asking the Public Safety Commission to authorize the emergency extension in August 2010, DPS officials wrote that contract personnel from Abrams provided services that were “vital to the life, safety and welfare of those citizens and law enforcement officers working and living along the Texas border.”
That contract was presented to the commission but without any discussion of the firm’s specific duties.
At the same August meeting, commissioners expressed concern about how the media presented border violence, complaining about an August 2010 Texas Monthly article that questioned the extent of cross-border violence in Texas.
“Despite fears to the contrary, the violence has not spilled over into Texas,” the article concluded.
“I think it did the governor a disservice (by downplaying the severity of border violence),” said then-Commissioner Tom Clowe. “He’s asking the federal government for troops, we’re asking for more funds, more people, more equipment. I don’t think that article gave a proper impression at all. I think it did the state of Texas, frankly, a disservice.”
Contact Jeremy Schwartz at 912-2942