Customs and Border Protection used money meant for food, medicine for dirt bikes, ATVs, says GAO

Adiel Kaplan

Customs and Border Protection spent parts of a $112 million emergency fund meant to buy food, medicine and other items for migrants on all-terrain vehicles, dirt bikes and boats, according to a Government Accountability Office report published 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," Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, said in a statement. "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."

At the request of Congress, the GAO had examined CBP's books for how the agency spent its emergency allocations for "consumables and medical care" in 2019 and issued a legal opinion finding that CBP had used the funds for items that were not food, hygiene products or medicine. The GAO recommended that CBP fix its books to put expenses in the proper categories and pay for the items out of the right parts of its budget, or else it would be required to report its failure to do so.

"If CBP lacks sufficient budget authority to make the adjustments, then it should report a violation of the Antideficiency Act as required by law," the GAO report said.

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The funds in question were a part of the 2019 Emergency Supplemental Appropriations for Humanitarian Assistance and Security at the Southern Border Act. The act was passed when there was a surge in asylum-seekers at the border and migrants were staying in overcrowded CBP processing centers, some so densely populated that there was nowhere for the migrants to lie down to sleep. The act included $112 million specifically for "consumables and medical care."

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Some of the purchases in question made with "consumables and medical care" funds included expenses for CBP's canine program, items in support of its employee vaccine program, computer network upgrades, printers, speakers and a selection of vehicles, including ATVs, motorcycles, dirt bikes, boats, passenger vans and small utility vehicles.

CBP also used some of the money for facility services, including heating and air conditioning upgrades, sewer system upgrades and janitorial services. The GAO found little to no connection between the expenses and the category of funds used to pay for them. While CBP disputed some of those decisions, according to the report, the agency agreed in correspondence with the GAO to reallocate some of the expenses to other budget categories.

In a statement, CBP called the identified violations "technical in nature" and said prompt remedial action would be taken.

"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 agency 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."