WASHINGTON – The Obama administration said Friday that two Democratic senators falsely took credit for steering millions of dollars to projects in their home state, even as officials acknowledged that the Homeland Security secretary met with the lawmakers and discussed financing the projects.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano denies politics played any role in distributing stimulus money. The Associated Press reported this week that her department did not follow its own priority list when selecting projects.
Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester have taken credit for helping secure $77 million in stimulus money for repairs at border stations in their state. That includes $15 million for a Whitetail, Mont., checkpoint that sees three travelers a day.
“Politicians take credit for things that go on in their state whether they deserve it or not,” Homeland Security spokesman Sean Smith said Friday. “These guys are politicians. I don’t think anyone should be surprised if they decided to jump in front of that and take some credit for that.”
It was an unusually pointed criticism directed at two Democrats. Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a key ally in the Obama administration’s push for a health care overhaul.
At first, Smith and Napolitano’s chief of staff, Noah Kroloff, denied that Napolitano even met with Tester and Baucus. After the AP contacted the two lawmakers, Smith acknowledged two meetings during the presidential transition, when Napolitano had been nominated but not confirmed.
A reference to the senators’ meetings was included in an AP story this week that raised questions about the funding process.
During the Jan. 16 meeting, Baucus told Napolitano it was important to spend money on checkpoints along the Canadian border, citing concerns about illegal activity there, said Tyler Matsdorf, a spokesman for Baucus. He said they did not discuss specific projects.
Tester similarly met with Napolitano Jan. 14 and “discussed in general the importance of strengthening security along Montana’s northern border,” his spokesman Aaron Murphy said.
After Montana projects received $77 million under the stimulus, Tester issued a press release crediting those meetings with Napolitano.
It’s not unusual or improper for senators to fight for hometown projects. But President Barack Obama banned Congress from choosing projects as part of the $787 economic stimulus bill, promising his agencies would be objective and transparent.
Smith said Friday that the secretary did not intervene in the selection process.
Napolitano herself acknowledged in April that politicians can influence how money gets spent. She said that as Arizona governor, she pushed the Bush administration to put a project in Nogales, Ariz., at the front of the line for money. It was ranked No. 34 on the internal priority list.
“I cannot claim credit totally for the $200 million for Nogales,” Napolitano said in April, adding, “The governor of Arizona may have had something to do with it, but the secretary did not.”
California Rep. Darrell Issa, the senior Republican on a House oversight committee investigating stimulus spending, is asking Homeland Security to release its records about the selection process.
“All Secretary Napolitano has to do to support her assertion that politics played no role in the awarding of stimulus funds is comply with our letter and disclose the criteria DHS used to determine who got what and why,” Issa’s spokesman, Kurt Bardella said.
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