Under fire, Napolitano halts projects for review

(AP) – Facing criticism for her handling of federal stimulus money, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said Wednesday that she would not start any new border construction projects while the department reviewed how projects were selected.

Napolitano has faced questions since The Associated Press reported last month that Homeland Security officials did not follow their internal priority lists when choosing which border checkpoints would get money for renovations. Under a process that is secretive and susceptible to political influence, officials planned to spend millions at tiny checkpoints, passing over busier, higher-priority projects.

The criticism peaked Wednesday when a senior Senate Democrat, Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, said that, despite Napolitano’s assurances, he felt Homeland Security was treating the economic stimulus plan like a “bottomless pit” of taxpayer money. It was unusually pointed criticism from a member of the president’s own party about how the administration is handling economic recovery spending.

So far, Homeland Security has refused to release its internal priority list or its justifications for deviating from it. Instead, officials say the final project list is all they need to make public.

Congress required the department to create a priority list in 2003 but the Obama administration added its own subjective decision-making to the process, making it vulnerable to the political influence that Obama pledged to keep out of the stimulus.

Dorgan sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee, which helps control the purse strings for the federal government.

“We’re deep in debt, we really do need to be smart about how we spend money,” Dorgan said. “In my judgment, this is not a smart investment.”

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