March 16, 2012 9:40 PM
McALLEN — Local politicians said Friday they wanted to learn more about state border security contracts with a private defense contractor after the Austin American-Statesman shed light on the subject.
An Austin American-Statesman article published Friday explained Texas Department of Public Safety contracts with the Virginia-based company, Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. (ALIS).
Over a four-and-a-half year period, the state paid ALIS about $20 million for border security operations, including working on the state’s Operation Border Star campaign, coordinating National Guard troops on the border, setting up intelligence centers and public relations, according to the article.
“This information raises some concerns,” said Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, adding that he had not read the contract between ALIS and DPS and was not familiar with the specific work done. “It does raise one particular concern: Why does the state contract with a private agency to get intelligence on border security when the federal government is one of the best at intelligence gathering and analysis? All they had to do was ask.”
DPS awarded the contract without bidding it out. DPS issued the initial contract on an emergency basis, stating there was not enough time to ask for bids. Gov. Rick Perry had mandated expanded border security in the state, but there were not enough state resources to handle the initiative, according to the Statesman article.
An ALIS contract, which in part covered the costs to staff the Border Security Operations Center, was discontinued in 2010 after officials determined it was more cost effective for the state to do the work itself, according to the Statesman article.
But later that year, DPS awarded ALIS another $1.4 million no-bid contract. One of ALIS’ duties on this contract was to “position Texas border security efforts in a positive light,” according to the article.
State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, told the Statesman that he plans to call for an investigation into the relationship between the state and ALIS.
State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, told The Monitor that he needs to get more information on the subject before calling for an investigation, but he does plan to ask questions.
“I’m not going to jump to conclusions until I get all the facts,” he said.
He said he will speak with DPS Director Steve McCraw to get his side of the story. Hinojosa noted that transparency is important in state government.
“We do not encourage emergency types of situations (for bids), but sometimes they’re much needed,” Hinojosa said.
State Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, called the lack of transparency “troubling.”
“Secret noted contracts should be a thing of the past, and we as taxpayers must accept no less than complete transparency of government,” he said.
He said he couldn’t comment on whether it was necessary to hire ALIS because he didn’t know the nature of the work they had done. But he also plans to look into it.
State Rep. Aaron Peña, R-Edinburg, said he did not know about the contract before reading it in the newspaper, but added that the state often enters into contracts with private companies for a variety of services. He said legislators are not made aware of each contract.
He said he could not comment on the ALIS contract until he meets with state officials involved and gets more information.
McAllen Mayor Richard Cortez, who is the chairman-elect of the Texas State Border Coalition, said he had not heard about the contract before he read the article. He said he wants to learn more about the work ALIS did.
“I’m disappointed that $20 million was spent on some unknown contractor, for really an unknown reason other than just a broad reason of border security, when our local law enforcement agencies are just begging for more money and more resources,” he said.
San Juan Police Chief Juan Gonzalez said lack of funds is one of his primary concerns.
According to Gonzalez, some of the best intelligence out there comes from local police departments in the border communities.
“Instead of being used as an asset, you have some of the small cities being left out and are having to worry about finding ways to equip their officers,” he said “Some of them don’t have enough bullet proof vests. They need to update their vehicles and may need more training or other equipment. Some of that money could have been a real asset in our smaller departments.”
DPS did take a proactive approach to border security, Gonzalez said.
“Crime statistics are down in some areas, but the statistics don’t take into account kidnappings and human trafficking which we are seeing here in the area,” he said.
According to Gonzalez the best strategy to really address border security is to have all the police agencies work as a regional unit with the same communication equipment and intelligence sharing capabilities rather than have individual departments isolate themselves.