AP IMPACT: Secret process benefits pet projects

WASHINGTON – A sleepy Montana checkpoint along the Canadian border that sees about three travelers a day will get $15 million under President Barack Obama's economic stimulus plan. A government priority list ranked the project as marginal, but two powerful Democratic senators persuaded the administration to make it happen.

Despite Obama's promises that the stimulus plan would be transparent and free of politics, the government is handing out $720 million for border upgrades under a process that is both secretive and susceptible to political influence. This allowed low-priority projects such as the checkpoint in Whitetail, Mont., to skip ahead of more pressing concerns, according to documents revealed to The Associated Press.

A House oversight committee has added the checkpoint projects to its investigation into how the stimulus money is being spent. The top Republican on that committee, California's Rep. Darrell Issa, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on Wednesday, questioning why some projects leapfrogged others.

It wasn't supposed to be that way. In 2004, Congress ordered Homeland Security to create a list, updated annually, of the most important repairs at checkpoints nationwide. But the Obama administration continued a Bush administration practice of considering other, more subjective factors when deciding which projects get money.

The results:

• A border station in Napolitano's home state of Arizona is getting $199 million, five times more than any other border station. The busy Nogales checkpoint has required repairs for years but was not rated among the neediest projects on the master list reviewed by the AP. Napolitano credited her lobbying as Arizona governor for getting the project near the front of the line for funding under the Bush administration. All it needed was money, which the stimulus provided.

• A checkpoint in Laredo, Texas, which serves more than 55,000 travelers and 4,200 trucks a day, is rated among the government's highest priorities but was passed over for stimulus money.

• The Westhope, N.D., checkpoint, which serves about 73 people a day and is among the lowest-priority projects, is set to get nearly $15 million for renovations.

The Whitetail project, which involves building a border station the size and cost of a Hollywood mansion, benefited from two key allies, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester. Both pressed Napolitano to finance projects in their state. Tester's office boasted of that effort in an April news release, crediting Baucus and his seat at the head of the "powerful Senate Finance Committee."

Customs officials would not discuss that claim. Asked to explain Whitetail's windfall, they provided 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.

It's hardly a recent phenomenon for politicians to use their influence to steer money to their home states. Yet Obama said the stimulus would be different. He banned "earmarks," which lawmakers routinely slip into bills to pay for pet projects, and he told agencies to "develop transparent, merit-based selection criteria" for spending.

Customs and Border Protection, the Homeland Security agency overseeing border projects, allowed the AP to review the list but will not make it public or explain its justifications for deviating from it.

Releasing that information would allow the public to see whether less important projects are getting money. The Transportation Department, for instance, recently was criticized by its internal watchdog for not following its standards when handing out money for 50 airport construction projects. Now the full $1.1 billion airport construction program is under scrutiny.

Without the lists, the public and members of Congress don't know when the administration bumps a project ahead of others ranked more important.

Customs officials said they wouldn't release the master list because it was just a starting point and subject to misunderstanding. They acknowledged there's no way for the public to know whether they are cherry-picking projects.

"There's a certain level of trust here," said Robert Jacksta, a deputy customs commissioner.

Some discrepancies between the stimulus plan and the priority list can be attributed to Congress, which set aside separate pools of money for large and small border stations. That guaranteed that a few small, probably lower-rated projects would be chosen ahead of bigger, higher-priority projects. But it doesn't explain all the discrepancies, because even within the two pools, Homeland Security sometimes reached way down on the list when selecting projects.

Many of the nation's 163 border checkpoints, known as land ports, are more than 40 years old and in need of upgrade and repairs. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, those needs became more pressing and complex as officials beefed up border security. There is far more work to be done than money to complete it.

To prioritize, officials score each project on traffic volume, security vulnerability, construction needs and other factors. The resulting list represents "an objective and fair method for prioritizing projects," officials wrote in a 2005 summary.

That's the process the Obama administration described in a news release announcing $720 million in stimulus money for borders. But it didn't say that officials can choose projects out of order for many reasons.

Trent Frazier, who oversees the border projects, said the list Congress required is more like a meal plan. The administration can decide when to eat each dish, as long as everything eventually gets eaten.

Explaining why one project might get pushed ahead, Frazier said, "You just really liked pizza and you wanted to accelerate it."

In the case of the stimulus, officials said the Nogales, Ariz., project was construction-ready, a requirement of the recovery law. Officials also consider the economy, which means if the government expects local businesses to close and border traffic to decrease, it can delay paying for that project.

In one instance, officials said they reached deep into the list to provide $39 million for repairs in Van Buren, Maine, because flooding made the facility a safety hazard. In another, they are spending $30 million in Blaine, Wash., a lower-rated project that is unusual because it includes covering the costs of a state road project. With the 2010 Olympics coming to nearby Vancouver, Canada, officials worried the border would be strained without the project.

Officials said they could similarly justify every decision they've made. They would not provide those justifications to the AP. Frazier said the department would answer questions on a case-by-case basis, working through Congress to explain decisions to the public.

But even some in Congress say they aren't getting answers. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, said he has yet to hear a good explanation about why highly ranked projects such as Laredo were snubbed.

More than $116 billion in freight passed through Laredo last year, according to the Transportation Department. It is one of the busiest border stations in the country. Unemployment in the metropolitan area is 9.4 percent.

"For the sake of fairness, if you have a list, there's some sort of expectation that you're going to follow that list," Cuellar said.

Tester, who said he pressed the Obama administration to get money for Montana projects, said border crossings in his state had been unfairly ignored.

"The northern border tends to be forgotten, and it shouldn't be," Tester told the Great Falls Tribune after announcing $77 million for Montana posts in the stimulus.

Whitetail, Mont., an unincorporated town with a population of 71, saw only about $63,000 in freight cross its border last year. County unemployment is an enviable 4 percent.

"I think, absolutely, it's going to create jobs and build the infrastructure," Tester said.