Tester wants more transparency on border upgrades
September 21, 2009
Montana Sen. Jon Tester has sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking for more transparency about the millions of dollars projected to be spent in Montana upgrading security checkpoints along the Canadian border. The Democrat sent the letter last week following questions on how $720 million in President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan was being spent on border upgrades around the nation. That includes $77 million to rebuild or repair five Montana ports of entry, with $15 million for the sleepy Whitetail border crossing that a government priority list ranked as marginal but jumped ahead of more pressing concerns, according to documents shown to The Associated Press last month. The Whitetail project involves Building a border station the size and cost of a mansion. Asked to explain Whitetail's windfall, customs officials provided the AP with a one-page fact sheet that contains no information about Whitetail's needs and is almost identical to the fact sheet for every other Montana project. Tester and fellow Montana Sen. Max Baucus, also a Democrat, pressed Napolitano to finance projects in their state. Tester's office boasted of that effort in April, crediting Baucus and his seat at the head of the Senate Finance Committee. Facing criticism, Napolitano earlier this month said she would not start any new border construction projects and would review how her department selected projects that would get money. "I strongly disagree with those who have stated that these improvements ought not be made to northern border ports," Tester wrote in the letter to Napolitano and obtained by the Missoulian newspaper. "However, the fact that the department has not produced any detailed documentation as to the reasons for the costs associated with the reconstruction of these ports suggests that perhaps further reconsideration is needed. We must bolster security along the northern border, and we must do so as responsibly and efficiently as possible." Tester said the Whitetail port is full of asbestos and lacks modern equipment and facilities. The Department of Homeland Security has confirmed the water well at Whitetail is contaminated, and many of the Montana ports scheduled for work date back to the early 1960s and have no facilities for inspecting rigs or detaining suspects. "There is no doubt that the five Montana ports are deficient, inadequate and need to be rebuilt," Tester wrote. "However, they need to be rebuilt in a way that meets both legitimate national security needs and realistic regional commercial needs." Tester noted that border arrests this summer included $34,000 in undeclared cash seized at Portal, N.D. (pop. 131); 577 pounds of marijuana seized at Maple Falls, Wash. (pop. 277); and in Montana, $11,000 worth of cocaine and marijuana seized at the port near Havre. He also wrote he would like to see congressional hearings on how projects were prioritized. "I had no role in determining where this work would be done," Tester wrote, "and I have never been briefed on how these decisions were made."