A North Dakota construction firm that has received backing from President Donald Trump has now secured the largest border wall contract ever awarded, a $1.3 billion deal to build 42 miles of black-painted fencing through the rugged mountains of southern Arizona.
The company that won the contract, Fisher Sand and Gravel, has been repeatedly lauded by the president in White House meetings with border officials and military commanders, the result of a long and personalized marketing pitch to Trump and ardent supporters of his barrier project.
After its initial bids for border contracts were passed over, the company and its CEO, Tommy Fisher, cut a direct path to the president by praising him on cable news, donating to his Republican allies and cultivating ties to former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon, GOP Senate candidate Kris Kobach and other conservative figures in Trump's orbit.
Fisher's first and only other major border contract, for $400 million, is under review by the Department of Defense Inspector General, after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns about improper White House influence on the procurement process. The IG's office confirmed Tuesday that the audit is ongoing.
The new award to Fisher carries an average cost of more than $30 million per mile of border barrier, more expensive than any other contract for Trump's wall. The project has morphed from a 2016 campaign promise into one of the largest federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history.
The 42-mile span of border south of Tucson, Arizona, where Fisher will build presents significant engineering complexities, with steep terrain and water crossings, including the Santa Cruz River basin, which floods during summer "monsoon" storms, according to border officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the project.
Swelling the price tag further was a design change from the president requiring the barrier to be painted black, adding approximately $1.2 million per mile, according to government contracting estimates obtained this month by The Washington Post.
Raini Brunson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers who confirmed the contract was awarded to Fisher, said contract amounts are determined by a range of factors.
"Each project cost is contingent upon its unique characteristics such as geotechnical, topographical, hydrological and hydraulic, underground utilities, final real estate access, and the cost of materials and labor," Brunson said in an email.
The $1.275 billion contract - Tucson Package 3 - consists of "a series of projects within a geographical area with more complex terrain," Brunson added. Under Army Corps procurement rules, the contract went to the lowest-priced technically acceptable bid, she said.
Trump has brought up Fisher in White House border wall meetings again in recent weeks, when he directed border officials and the Army Corps to paint the steel barrier black, a design change that would add at least $500 million to the overall cost.
The president has told aides the darker color will absorb more solar radiation and scorch the hands of any would-be border-jumpers who try to climb the fence. Engineers say the black paint will increase long-term maintenance costs and will boost the metal's ability to retain heat by less than 10 percent.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on the Fisher award Tuesday. Attorneys for the company did not respond to an inquiry, and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) referred questions to the Army Corps.
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, blasted the contract in a statement to The Post, noting the Pentagon Inspector General's audit is not yet complete and that the country is in the grips of a pandemic and economic crisis.
"It speaks volumes to the administration's lack of transparency that they didn't announce this award - the largest ever - and we continue to learn about contracts to companies without a proven track record from the media," Thompson said. "Given the coronavirus pandemic and the ongoing investigation into Fisher, the administration should pause construction and contracting decisions until the investigation has concluded favorably and it is safe to resume nonessential construction projects."
The section of border where Fisher will build is between Nogales, Ariz., and the Buenos Aires Wildlife Refuge, an area that has long been an active smuggling corridor. The contract also includes a portion east of Nogales where the Santa Cruz River traverses the border. Such water crossings have required the installation of specialized storm gates that can be left open during summer months to prevent the structure from being torn down by flash floods.
While the contract awarded to Fisher is the single-largest award to date, another firm, Southwest Valley Constructors Co, a subsidiary of federal contracting giant Kiewit, has received multiple awards worth more in total, records show.
The Arizona Daily Star first reported the Fisher contract, which has not been announced by the Department of Defense or CBP.
A CBP official familiar with the area said building a barrier will be "a challenge" and that the higher cost for the contract was likely the result of its "remoteness, rugged terrain, and logistical challenges." The official was not authorized to discuss the Fisher award publicly.
Tommy Fisher's enthusiastic support for the president, and Fisher's unconventional promotional efforts have made his company a darling for some of the president's most militant supporters. It also has made it a target for Democratic lawmakers.
Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., a close ally of the president's, urged him to hire Fisher while sharply criticizing the Army Corps for passing over the company. Fisher donated to Cramer's Senate campaign, appeared with Cramer as he ran for office and was Cramer's personal guest at Trump's State of the Union address last year. Cramer did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Fisher has paid the lobbying firm Odney more than $100,000 since 2017 while trying to secure border wall contracts, records show. North Dakota-based Odney also worked for Cramer during his 2018 Senate run.
While bidding on government border wall contracts, Fisher has build border barriers on private land for the activist group "We Build the Wall," in some cases purchasing the land himself, according to court filings. The group's advisory board is led by Bannon, Kobach, Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince and other conservative personalities. Its president, Brian Kolfage, frequently taunts and spars with environmental groups and immigrant advocates on social media.
"ANOTHER HUGE WIN! Congrats Tommy Fisher!" Kolfage wrote on Twitter. "It's clear you built @WeBuildtheWall the best border wall ever on the US border and now you're being rewarded for your hard work."
Fisher sued the Army Corps last year when the company was not selected to be one of the preapproved firms eligible to bid on border wall contracts, claiming the process was unfair. Cramer spoke to the president about Fisher and at one point held up a White House budget office nominee to compel the Army Corps to disclose information about the bidding process that it said would violate procurement rules.
The company was subsequently added to the pool of eligible bidders, and once its foot was in the door, it could outbid competitors. Fisher's $1.3 billion bid was the lowest on the 42-mile span, according to one official with knowledge of the contract.
As part of Fisher's marketing push, the company has claimed it can build the barrier faster and for less money, using a signature technique that deploys a fleet of excavators to install elongated segments of steel bollards into the ground and hold them in place until they are secure, instead of relying on conventional bracing methods.
Trump has made the barrier project a major theme of his reelection pitch, and Homeland Security officials say crews are still on track to deliver on the president's promise to complete nearly 500 miles of new fencing by the end of the year. They have finished at least 187 miles so far, according to the most recent figures from CBP.
The Trump administration has allocated more than $15 billion for the project to date, but only about one-third of that has been appropriated by lawmakers. The White House has diverted most of the rest of the money from military construction projects and counternarcotics programs.
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The Washington Post's Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.
This article was written by Nick Miroff, a reporter for The Washington Post.