State senator calls for investigation of border security contracts awarded to private firm

State senator calls for investigation of border security contracts awarded to private firm

Alberto Martínez /AMERICAN-STATESMAN

José Rodríguez asks for an investigation of no-bid contracts and bidding policies.

By Jeremy Schwartz

State Sen. José Rodríguez, D-El Paso, called Friday for the Texas comptroller’s office to investigate a series of no-bid contracts totaling about $20 million that the Department of Public Safety awarded a private defense contractor to develop and coordinate a range of border security strategies since 2006.

The call comes a day after the American-Statesman reported on the contracts, which expanded dramatically after Gov. Rick Perry ordered the DPS to redouble its border security efforts.

After winning an emergency contract — based on Perry’s order — the firm, Abrams Learning and Information Systems, went on to receive several no-bid contracts through a state procurement process that is more often used by state agencies to purchase goods and commodities.

Among the firm’s duties was developing a media information strategy aimed at raising public support for the state’s border security efforts.

ALIS operated far below the radar, and few state and local officials outside of law enforcement were aware of the firm’s activities.

In a letter to Texas Comptroller Susan Combs, Rodríguez questioned ALIS’ no-bid or so-called sole-source contracts and what he called the “lack of any meaningful performance or accountability measures.”

“The issues surrounding these contracts bring to light a serious public policy consideration of whether the state of Texas should have outsourced the bulk of border security operations to a private company,” Rodríguez wrote.

He called on Combs to conduct “a full investigation of DPS’ contracts with ALIS as well as DPS’ general policies for bidding and procurement.”

Comptroller’s office spokesman R.J. DeSilva said the agency had received Rodríguez’s letter and would respond.

The State Auditor’s Office has raised concerns about DPS’ use of emergency contracts, and DPS officials have acknowledged the need to reform the department’s contracting processes in recent years.

In 2009, new agency rules went into effect requiring that large contracts like those awarded to ALIS be presented to the Public Safety Commission. The bulk of ALIS’ contracts were approved before the policy change, without public discussion.

Rodríguez also sent a number of questions to DPS Director Steven McCraw, asking for more information on why ALIS was initially awarded an emergency contract in 2006 and whether the agency has made changes in response to critical state auditor findings.

DPS officials have praised the firm for bringing a military sensibility to border operations and setting up the state’s border security infrastructure, including joint operations centers and “unified commands” where local, state and federal law enforcement officials come together to fight border crime.

Contact Jeremy Schwartz
 at 912-2942

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