Records show Trump’s border wall is costing taxpayers billions more than initial contracts

A border wall construction site near Donna, Texas, on Dec. 8, 2019. (Veronica G. Cardenas/Reuters)

On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Within a year of the initial award, the value of the two contracts had more than tripled, to over $3 billion, even though the length of the fence the companies were building had only grown by 62%, to 135 miles. The money is coming from military counter-narcotics funding.

Those contract spikes were dramatic, but not isolated. A ProPublica/Texas Tribune review of federal spending data shows more than 200 contract modifications, at times awarded within just weeks or months after the original contracts, have increased the cost of the border wall project by billions of dollars since late 2017. This is particularly true this year, in the run-up to next week’s election. The cost of supplemental agreements and change orders alone — at least $2.9 billion — represents about a quarter of all the money awarded and more than what Congress originally appropriated for wall construction in each of the last three years.

President Donald Trump made construction of the border wall a signature issue during his 2016 campaign, claiming that his skills as a builder and businessman would allow his administration to build the wall in a more cost-efficient way than his predecessors. “You know the wall is almost finished,” he told a crowd of supporters in Arizona recently, and they weren’t paying a “damn cent” for the border wall. It was “compliments of the federal government.”

Yet an accounting of border wall contracts awarded during his presidency shows that his administration has failed to protect taxpayer interests or contain costs and stifled competition among would-be builders, experts say. In all, Trump’s wall costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

Veteran, War Hero, Defendant, Troll

Brian Kolfage at a 2014 Veterans Day parade in New York City. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

War hero. Veterans advocate. Family man.

It was an image years in the making. Brian Kolfage had lost three limbs in an Iraq bomb blast in 2004, making him the most badly wounded airman to survive the war. He had become a motivational speaker, was the subject of sympathetic news profiles and was even a guest at former President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in 2012.

More recently, 38-year-old Kolfage had positioned himself as a border security visionary after raising $25 million to construct privately funded fences in an effort to help President Donald Trump keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the southern border.

On social media and in the lucrative industry of online news sites dedicated to far-right politics, there’s a very different Kolfage, though. One who, over the last decade, has sharpened a strategy of retribution and retaliation against his online critics, asking his legion of followers to “expose” perceived enemies and “make (them) famous,” according to numerous interviews, hundreds of screenshots of since-deleted social media posts and court records from two defamation lawsuits to which he was a party.

Kolfage’s actions online have spawned an informal support group of individuals who have felt his wrath, including fellow veterans and progressives, as well as some of Kolfage’s former conservative allies. His social media activity has forced him to formally apologize to a perceived online critic as part of a court settlement and prompted a judge to issue a warning following his recent indictment on fraud charges.

Facebook has barred Kolfage from its platform for his online behavior, which includes creating multiple fake accounts and linking to “ad farms,” a company spokeswoman said, adding that his actions violated “our rules against spam and inauthentic behavior.”

Neither Kolfage nor his attorney responded to requests for comment. He’s previously said his social media approach is in response to negative comments that others publish about him, such as allegations of fraud.

Kolfage, along with three others, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, are charged with defrauding thousands of donors to Kolfage’s nonprofit, We Build the Wall. Prosecutors allege the men deceived donors by using Kolfage’s public persona and his pledge not to take a dime in salary. Instead, Kolfage pocketed more than $350,000, according to the indictment. The men have pleaded not guilty.

So far, the nonprofit has helped build two private wall projects, including one in the Rio Grande Valley that a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found could topple into the river if not properly fixed and maintained.

Kolfage has unleashed his growing army of followers on critics and opponents of those projects, including local elected and wildlife refuge officials and a priest. Death threats followed.

The National Butterfly Center, next door to the border fence built in the Rio Grande Valley, “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children,” Kolfage tweeted last year. Facebook and Twitter messages calling staffers “pigs,” “pathetic filth” and “traitors” poured in. “You will be made to pay,” one Facebook follower declared in a message.

To those who know him, Kolfage’s online attacks reflect a pattern.

Continue reading at ProPublica.

Privately built border wall will fail, engineering report says

The 3-mile border fence along the shore of the Rio Grande will fail during extreme flooding, according to an engineering report that is set to be filed in federal court this week. Credit: Brenda Bazán for The Texas Tribune.

It’s not a matter of if a privately built border fence along the shores of the Rio Grande will fail, it’s a matter of when, according to a new engineering report on the troubled project.

The report is one of two new studies set to be filed in federal court this week that found numerous deficiencies in the 3-mile border fence, built this year by North Dakota-based Fisher Sand and Gravel. The reports confirm earlier reporting from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune, which found that segments of the structure were in danger of overturning due to extensive erosion if not fixed and properly maintained. Fisher dismissed the concerns as normal post-construction issues.

Donations that paid for part of the border fence are at the heart of an indictment against members of the We Build the Wall nonprofit, which raised more than $25 million to help President Donald Trump build a border wall.

Former Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage and two others connected to the organization are accused of siphoning donor money to pay off personal debt and fund lavish lifestyles. All four, who face up to 20 years in prison on each of the two counts they face, have pleaded not guilty, and Bannon has called the charges a plot to stop border wall construction.

We Build the Wall, whose executive board is made up of influential immigration hard-liners like Bannon, Kris Kobach and Tom Tancredo, contributed $1.5 million of the cost of the $42 million private border fence project south of Mission, Texas.

Last year, the nonprofit also hired Fisher to build a half-mile fence segment in Sunland Park, New Mexico, outside El Paso.

Company president Tommy Fisher, a frequent guest on Fox News, had called the Rio Grande fence the “Lamborghini” of border walls and bragged that his company’s methods could help Trump reach his Election Day goal of about 500 new miles of barriers along the southern border.

Instead, one engineer who reviewed the two reports on behalf of ProPublica and The Texas Tribune likened Fisher’s fence to a used Toyota Yaris.

Continue reading at The Texas Tribune.

Private Border Wall Fundraisers Have Been Arrested on Fraud Charges

Federal prosecutors indicted Brian Kolfage and others involved with the nonprofit We Build the Wall, charging that they looted the charity for personal gain. (Devon Ravine/Northwest Florida Daily News via AP)

When we asked Brian Kolfage last month to explain how his group We Build the Wall had spent the $25 million it had raised, plus address concerns of corruption when the private sector takes over the building of border walls, he scoffed.

“How is there corruption?” Kolfage, a decorated Iraq War veteran, told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. “It’s privatized. It’s not federal money.”

As to the money, he said those details would come in the fall when the nonprofit filed the required tax forms.

On Thursday, federal prosecutors indicted Kolfage; We Build the Wall board member Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump; and two others involved in the nonprofit, charging that they looted the charity for personal gain.

Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said they falsely told donors that all the money raised by the group would go toward construction but then directed a sizable chunk to themselves.

“While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, 38, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” she added in a news release.

More than $350,000 was allegedly routed to Kolfage, which he spent on, among other things, home renovations, a triple-engined outboard boat and a luxury SUV. Bannon, 66, through an unnamed nonprofit, received more than $1 million, according to the indictment. The other two charged are Andrew Badolato, a venture capitalist, and Timothy Shea, who is married to We Build The Wall’s chief financial officer. Bannon pleaded not guilty in federal court on Thursday.

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‘It Cost Me Everything’: In Texas, COVID-19 Takes a Devastating Toll on Hispanic Residents

Hispanic residents in the Houston region, including Valery Martinez and her family, have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo credit: Brandon Thibodeaux for The Texas Tribune/ProPublica/NBC News

HOUSTON — Two weeks after Valery Martinez’s 41-year-old cousin was rushed to a hospital with severe symptoms of COVID-19, Martinez wrote a post on Facebook, thanking the doctors and nurses at Memorial Hermann Southeast Hospital in Houston who were working to save him.

“You are the real heroes putting your life on the line in this difficult time,” Martinez wrote. “May God continue to cover and protect you and your families.”

Afterward, she started getting messages from friends — nearly all of them Hispanic, like her — who said their loved ones were also sick with the coronavirus. One friend’s aunt was in intensive care at Memorial Hermann Southeast.

The friend’s family was planning a prayer vigil outside the hospital that weekend, so Martinez asked to join. Then members of another family they knew came forward, asking if they, too, could come pray for a loved one hospitalized there with COVID-19.

Martinez choked back tears that Sunday afternoon this month as she and 40 others stood in a parking lot outside Memorial Hermann Southeast, faces covered with masks, hands lifted in prayer for the three patients hospitalized in ICU rooms 2, 11 and 22 — all Hispanic, all connected to ventilators.

The moment made Martinez feel like she wasn’t alone, she said, and helped her realize just how rapidly the virus was spreading through her community.

“Pretty much everyone who I know has had coronavirus or has a family member who’s been sick or is in the hospital,” said Martinez, who by early this week could list 45 Hispanic friends, family members and acquaintances who’ve been sick with the virus in the Houston area — including four who’d died.

As the coronavirus tears disproportionately through Latino communities in Texas, data released this week by state health officials reveals that an outsized share of these residents are also suffering the worst outcomes. Hispanic Texans make up about 40% of the state’s population but 48% of the state’s 6,190 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, according to Department of State Health Services data.

In the Houston region, where COVID-19 hospitalizations surged in June before beginning to decline in recent days, data released by the Harris County health department showed a disproportionate share of those requiring hospital care — as high as 65% of newly hospitalized patients during some weeks in June — were Hispanic, despite the fact they are 44% of the population.

Continue reading at ProPublica.