- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2014

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency spent $4.6 million too much for housing, a watchdog said Thursday, possibly pricing its own agents out of homes built for their use.

CBP decided it needed more places for its agents to stay while they worked in remote areas along the troubled border, so it decided to construct 21 houses in Ajo, Arizona, a small town located next to a national wildlife refuge, the Homeland Security inspector general said in a new audit.

But instead of building the one-bedroom apartment-style houses recommended for agents on assignment, CBP instead built two- and three-bedroom homes, investigators said.

The resulting cost was about $680,000 for each house, the IG said, more than a half-million dollars above the average price of housing in Ajo of $86,500.

“It’s particularly timely and very egregious because of the crisis we’re having down there right now,” said Leslie Paige, spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a fiscal watchdog. “The American people and taxpayers would expect that Customs and Border Protection would be spending every available dime on things that matter.”

“Nobody is arguing that these [CBP employees] shouldn’t be housed in adequate housing,” Ms. Paige said, but added that “any misuse of any funds related to CBP right now is detracting from the main mission, and the main mission is protecting the border.”

On top of construction, CBP bought an additional 20 mobile homes for $2.4 million — an average cost of $120,000 per unit and still above the housing average for the area, investigators said.

The high cost of housing may have priced the units right out of agents’ budgets. Several CBP employees told investigators that the high rent was a concern among many agents and likely the reason that four of the houses are currently unoccupied.

“According to several CBP officials, to lower the rental price, some employees were sharing houses,” the report said.

A statement from U.S. Customs and Border Protection to The Washington Times said that the agency agrees with the need for continued oversight but “disagrees with the way the report calculates the ‘per unit’ cost and the apples-to-oranges comparison of project costs to the sales price of existing units in Ajo.”

“In Ajo, CBP built urgently needed housing for employees in accordance with the approved CBP design standards and the U.S. government guidance,” the agency said. “CBP remains committed to providing quality, cost-effective housing for frontline border security personnel — and their families — who work to secure our nation’s Southwest border.”

But Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a Republican, took to Twitter to express his outrage Thursday evening.

Ajo episode is inexcusable,” Mr. Flake’s tweet read. “Here’s hoping resulting transparency will impact the way [DHS] and [CBP] spend funds in the future.”

Part of the huge expense was an area of land that CBP officials purchased to construct the houses — a former mobile home park. Residents there had signed 75-year leases, forcing the government to have to pay $575,000 just to buy them out of their agreements.

But both the inspector general and an internal CBP report suggested that all the housing could have been built on land that avoided the trailer park.

“A CBP official warned that using this particular property would lead to a greater cost to the government,” investigators said.

Investigators noted that CBP commissioned its own cost-benefit study of building the houses in Ajo but then “ignored recommendations” about prices that the study made.

“Why bother doing an assessment over the best way to use the money, and then turn around, basically thumb your nose and do it anyway?” Ms. Paige said.

CBP leaders told investigators they were starting “a new process for reviewing and vetting all capital facilities projects with estimated costs of $1 million or more.”

The houses were also decked out in what investigators said were “nonessential” items, including quartz countertops, stainless steel kitchen appliances, walk-in pantries and three-car garages.

CBP officials said they believed they could save money in the long run by making the housing of a higher quality, but the IG said the agency “was unable to provide cost comparisons or support how its decisions resulted in cost savings.”

Investigators said they are trying to fix the issues before more money is spent.

“According to CBP, once funding becomes available, it plans to build more houses in Lukeville, close to Ajo,” the IG said.

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