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Sen. Kevin Cramer, right, is interviewed during a visit to Arizona on April 16, 2019, to observe Fisher Industries, a North Dakota company, show how it can build a wall on the southern border. In the background is a portion of wall the company demonstrated they can build. Courtesy photo / Office of Sen. Kevin Cramer

Cramer airs criticisms against Army Corps over border wall contracts, but denies motivation linked to campaign donor

BISMARCK — North Dakota Sen. Kevin Cramer reiterated harsh criticisms of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers this week while denying that he pushed the federal agency to choose a campaign donor's company to build barriers along the U.S. border with Mexico.

In written responses to questions from Forum News Service, the first-term Republican senator said he would like to see Dickinson-based Fisher Industries build some of the wall because it's a North Dakota company.

"But while I am cheering on a constituent, I am in no way pushing the USACE to choose anyone except whoever can build the most effective wall at the lowest cost," Cramer wrote Tuesday evening, Aug. 6. "If another company that can deliver a better product at a lower cost wins a bid, I would be just as supportive."

The Washington Post reported late last week that Cramer held up a budget official's confirmation while trying to obtain information about border wall contracts. He also criticized the "arrogance" of the Army Corps of Engineers, which has solicited construction bids, after officials said they could not share proprietary information.

Cramer's office said last week President Donald Trump "deputized" the senator to work with the Corps to "ensure their process is fair, transparent, and delivers the best possible deal for the American people." The senator met with Corps leadership Friday and received an update on wall construction and the bidding process, as well as "a number" of requested documents, his office said in a news release.

Cramer told Forum News Service Tuesday there's no "urgency" from the Corps to build the wall, a signature campaign promise from Trump to stem illegal immigration.

"Whether this is due to mediocrity or outright corruption is the very purpose of my inquiries," he wrote before expressing frustration with the "secrecy" of the bidding process. He said he's requesting "nonpublic details associated with several bids awarded."

"As I mentioned before, they understand the request remains outstanding and we are continuing to work through the system to get the requested documents," Cramer added.

The senator's office requested written questions from Forum News Service to accommodate his international travel.

An Army Corps spokesperson said the agency hasn't denied Cramer access to border barrier contracts, which it said it awards based on federal regulations.

"Companies are awarded contracts when they are determined to provide the best value to the government for the particular procurement action being undertaken," the spokesperson said.

The Corps spokesperson didn't say why it hasn't chosen Fisher Industries for wall work and declined to comment further, but the Post reported the agency said the company's design didn't meet its requirements.

Campaign finance records show Fisher's president and CEO, Tommy Fisher, and his wife gave the maximum $10,800 to Cramer in his successful Senate run last year. Fisher was Cramer's guest for the 2018 State of the Union address.

In May, the Post reported Trump sought to award Fisher Industries a border wall contract.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Tommy Fisher said he didn't believe his political support was motivating Cramer's actions. He said he was frustrated with federal bureaucracy and construction delays and touted his company's ability to build barriers efficiently, pointing to their project on private property near El Paso, Texas.

"I've never asked for one bit of influence," Fisher said. "All I've asked for is to get a fair shot."

Still, the Post report raised some concern for government ethics watchdogs.

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for the Washington, D.C.-based and left-leaning Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said it appeared to reflect the larger influence of money affecting decisions in the nation's capital.

"This is how the sausage is made in Washington," he said. "It is not uncommon for members of Congress and the Senate to fight for benefits for companies and people that supported them."

Beth Rotman, director of money in politics and ethics at Washington, D.C.-based Common Cause, another left-leaning group, noted some states have enacted campaign contribution limits for principals of state contractors. She said those limits are meant to lessen the appearance of favoritism in awarding government contracts.

"We can't know what somebody's thinking but we can know what it looks like," Rotman said. "And it doesn't look good."

Cramer has said his support for Fisher Industries hasn't been influenced by campaign contributions. On Tuesday, he pointed the finger at "liberal media" and what he saw as an unaccountable bureaucracy while calling on Corps leadership to identify the "leaker" of his emails to the Post.

"I’d like to see a journalist be as concerned about a government agency spending billions of dollars without accountability as they are about a senator advocating for a constituent," Cramer wrote.

John Hageman

John Hageman covers North Dakota politics from the Forum News Service bureau in Bismarck. He attended the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, where he studied journalism and political science, and he previously worked at the Grand Forks Herald and Bemidji Pioneer.  

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