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John Abrams

Outsourcing Texas border security

What could possibly go wrong?

Gen. John Abrams

A little-known private defense contractor from Virginia has quietly received about $20 million under a series of no-bid contracts with the State of Texas to develop its border security strategies, an effort that included shaping the state’s public message on the increasingly controversial nature and extent of violence spilling into Texas from Mexico.

According to an internal Department of Public Safety memo, the role of Abrams Learning and Information Systems Inc. expanded dramatically after Gov. Rick Perry, then in the midst of a campaign for governor, ordered an acceleration of border security operations that the state wasn’t equipped to handle on its own.

Over the next 4 1/2 years — ALIS, founded in 2004 by retired Army Gen. John Abrams — would become intimately involved in nearly every aspect of the Texas Department of Public Safety’s border security apparatus, according to documents obtained by the American-Statesman through the Texas Public Information Act. Its assignments ranged from refining the state’s Operation Border Star campaign and coordinating the role of National Guard troops along the border, to setting up the state’s joint intelligence support centers and creating a multimillion-dollar high-tech system to map border crime.

Despite the firm’s work on the state’s most important border operations, ALIS flew so far under the radar that outside of law enforcement, few state and local leaders knew of its activities. Several officials who have worked closely on border security issues said they had no knowledge of the firm until contacted by the Statesman.

State Sen. Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, said he plans to call for an investigation into the state’s relationship with ALIS, saying that the state had outsourced vital security operations to a firm with “less accountability and less transparency than I would expect from state agencies.”

Even a keen observer of the Department of Public Safety could easily have been unaware of the contractor. Despite more than half a dozen contracts totalling $19.2 million, according to the Texas comptroller’s office, a review of the minutes and agendas of the state’s Public Safety Commission meetings between 2006 and 2011 revealed no public discussion about the firm’s role and only passing references to the firm’s contracts.

Department policy did not require contracts such as those with ALIS to be presented to the commission until September 2009, according to DPS officials.

Nor does the website of the Legislative Budget Board, the only agency charged with gathering information on state contracts, reveal the extent of the ALIS role; it shows just two contracts worth $2.1 million.

[…]

In August 2010, the DPS enlisted Abrams to develop a public and media outreach strategy to “position Texas border security efforts in a positive light,” paying the firm to develop talking points, presentations, testimony and the “orientation” of senior government leaders. Abrams created a public relations campaign featuring 36 principal messages, including “The success of Texas border security and law enforcement efforts are critical to preserving you and your family’s safety and way of life” and “Border Security is a Federal Responsibility but a Texas problem” — the exact language contained in an earlier Perry speech and a common refrain during Perry’s presidential campaign.

A draft document obtained by the American-Statesman, titled “Border Security Public Outreach Themes and Messages,” includes talking points that would seem to boost the firm’s standing. In touting Operation Border Star, the state’s principal border security strategy, the document says that law enforcement agencies “join with private companies” to “reduce border-related crime.” The messages were meant to be used by the agency’s public information department and to guide agency interactions with the media.

DPS officials say they contracted with ALIS on media outreach because they wanted the public to know about Mexican cartels recruiting Texas students to carry drugs and other threats such as smuggling operations and public corruption.

Rodriguez said he thinks ALIS’s public information work represented a conflict of interest. “They are giving talking points to officials so they can make the case for more public money for border security, which they can then use to pay for more contracts,” Rodriguez said. “(ALIS) was doing this to make themselves more relevant.”

Abrams was one of those retired generals who spent the year 2002 on TV and in the newspapers as a “military analyst” beating the drum for an invasion of Iraq, so he knows a little something about this kind of sales job. You really need to read the whole thing, then when you’re done go read the Alternet story that came out a couple of days before the Statesman published theirs. Among other things, Alternet reporter Tom Barry points to a February report from the Texas state auditor that called into question the way some federal grant money for border security was spent:

The audit reviewed a representative selection of cases among the $265.9 million in federal grants and subgrants to DPS — in the areas of homeland security, border security, emergency management, and law enforcement interoperability.

Among the findings of negligence and incompetence were these startling instances:

  • A draw-down of $755,509 in federal funds to issue a duplicate payment to one subgrantee.
  • Five of the six procurements (83%) examined by the auditor in the cluster of federal grants for homeland and border security were not bid competitively as required.
  • DPS categorized four of the five procurements examined by the auditor as “emergency procurements,” and in three of those four DPS was unable to document why they were processed as “emergency” contracts.
  • DPS has no system to track, administer, monitor federal subgrants – as federal guidelines require, leading to routine occurrences of duplicate payments, dipping into one federal fund to pay for unrelated programs, and failure to submit required reports and audits.
  • Complete failure to track interest rates on unused federal funds and to remit those funds, as required by federal grant guidelines.
  • Access to law-enforcement databases by contract programmers who lacked proper authorization or clearance.

Grits flagged both of these, and summarizes as follows:

Sounds like the McCaffrey report and the recent Spring Break warning are all part of a broader public relations campaign. For that kind of money, there’s likely more misinformation coming, or else this was the most expensive PR advice Texas taxpayers ever paid for.

Just a reminder that no matter what the budget situation is, Rick Perry and the Republicans in the Lege will always find money for the things they think are important. Go read and find out how that money has been spent without you knowing about it. More here and here, and a statement from US Rep. Silvestre Reyes is beneath the fold.

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