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GAO: DHS agency misspent emergency funds on dirt bikes, dog food

The money had been appropriated for food and medical care for a surge of migrant families seeking asylum last year

A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits while agents process migrants along the Texas-Mexico border last August.
A U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicle sits while agents process migrants along the Texas-Mexico border last August. (Jinitzail Hernández/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Customs and Border Protection violated the law by spending emergency funding specifically designated for “consumables and medical care” for migrants on other items, including dirt bikes, boats and dog food, according to a Government Accountability Office decision released Thursday.

In June 2019, Congress passed a $4.59 billion supplemental spending bill to help border authorities improve conditions at their overcrowded facilities and process the large numbers of families and unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border to request asylum. 

The GAO said it came across the misspending by CBP after auditing the Department of Homeland Security agency for the way it had handled that surge of migrants.

“We conclude that CBP violated the purpose statute when it obligated amounts expressly appropriated for consumables and medical care and establishing and operating migrant care and processing facilities for other purposes,” according to the GAO decision.

The purpose statute requires that agencies spend money only on the goods and services for which it has been appropriated.

The watchdog agency noted that $112 million Congress appropriated for “consumables and medical care” was partly used toward CBP’s canine program. Specifically, the border agency used it to purchase dog food, leashes, and canine supplements, according to congressional aides briefed on the matter. 

The agency also spent this money on a vaccine program for CBP personnel and for information technology upgrades.

“CBP did not — nor did it attempt to — make any connection between these obligations and the consumables and medical care line item appropriation,” the GAO audit found. 

Finally, the agency also spent this money on transportation and toward vehicles such as ATVs, motorcycles, dirt bikes, boats and passenger vans.

While CBP tried to justify some of these costs, GAO auditors did not find the agency’s reasoning “adequate,” the GAO said in its opinion. 

“CBP plans to adjust its accounts for several of these obligations and should do so for any additional purpose violations by obligating the account available for the appropriate purpose,” it said. 

The emergency border funding was passed at a time when the border agency faced increased scrutiny from Congress and human rights advocates because of overcrowded and unhygienic conditions at its facilities and mistreatment of migrants. 

The House passed the funding measure on a 305-102 vote after weeks of rifts between moderate and more progressive members of the Democratic majority. The House leadership had taken up a Senate-passed bill with fewer restrictions and more money for immigration and border agencies — something that freshmen progressives including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., had vehemently criticized. 

CBP said in a statement Thursday it had fully cooperated with the inquiry.

“As the opinion notes, CBP charged a small subset of expenses in fiscal year 2019 to the incorrect account. We are working to itemize all such expenses, and correct our accounts as recommend by the GAO,” the statement said. “We emphasize that, and GAO’s opinion does not suggest otherwise, all of CBP’s obligations were for lawful objects related to agency operations and the care of those in our custody; the violations identified are technical in nature and prompt remedial action will be taken.”

Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a California Democrat and chairwoman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, called the GAO decision “disturbing but not surprising.”

“The last few years have witnessed a deterioration in departmental operations, including at CBP, due to rapid turnover of leadership, the implementation of extreme policies frequently mandated by the White House without input or time for preparation by the Department, and a humanitarian crisis at the border caused in part by those policies,” she said in a statement.

“Amidst all of this chaos, CBP is also losing some of its most valuable and experienced executive personnel because their wisdom and experience has been increasingly ignored under this Administration.”

The decision drew a fiery response from Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee. Congress passed the emergency funding for CBP at the request of the Trump administration to address a humanitarian crisis at the border “largely created by this Administration and consistently made worse with repeated politically charged, anti-immigrant policies,” he said in a statement Thursday.

“Congress provided this additional funding for the primary purpose of improving conditions for migrants at the border and ensuring migrants were receiving adequate healthcare after the deaths of multiple children in custody,” he said. ” Instead of helping migrants and improving conditions on the ground, CBP then broke the law by spending this taxpayer money on things that were not authorized — such as ATVs, dirt bikes, and computer systems.” 

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