House Republicans have launched an investigation into the role that a Biden-Harris transition team official played in the government’s award of hundreds of millions of dollars in immigration contracts to his organization — as well as millions of dollars that auditors concluded the contractor wasted.
The House Oversight and Reform Committee’s top Republicans sent a letter to acting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director Tae Johnson on Wednesday requesting all communications between the federal agency, the contractor Endeavors, and a former Biden transition team official, Andrew Lorenzen-Strait.
“ICE officials bypassed the ordinary competitive process to award a large, sole source $87 million contract and then wasted at least $17 million of taxpayer money because hotel rooms intended for migrant families sat empty and were mostly unused,” the letter states. “Not only have the Biden Administration’s policies exacerbated the crisis on our border, it now appears the Administration is exploiting the crisis to reward its political allies with sole source contracts.”
Ranking member James Comer (R-KY) and 18 other Republicans signed on to the letter.
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The decision by lawmakers to further investigate the deal comes one year after the Washington Examiner first exposed that ICE signed an $87 million contract with Endeavors, a San Antonio-based nonprofit group. Weeks later, the Department of Health and Human Services awarded a $530 million contract to Endeavors to hold migrant children in custody. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General found Endeavors wasted $17 million of the first contract, prompting Republicans' new investigation.
Scott Amey, general counsel for the Washington-based Project On Government Oversight, said the findings indicate "this went from originally from kind of a cozy dealings revolving door story and having friends in high places that resulted in some questionable contracts to now proof ... that ICE didn't follow all the proper procedures and have the appropriate justifications for awarding a sole source deal."
The Washington Examiner reported in April 2021 that the Biden administration had not solicited bids for the $87 million contract to house migrant families in hotels after they illegally walked across the southern border and were taken into custody. It would cover the use of 1,239 hotel beds at seven hotels located in Arizona and Texas for six months. In total, a maximum of 80,000 people were expected to pass through the hotels. The federal contract stated the hotels would serve as “emergency family reception sites” where families would be held up to three days before being released into the United States.
The need for an organization to house migrant families was never disclosed to the private sector, barring other organizations and companies from competing for the contract. Government contracts are supposed to be awarded through an open competitive process as outlined in the Federal Acquisition Regulation. ICE went with an internal candidate that had significant insider connections and cited "unusual and compelling urgency" as the basis for its decision.
Lorenzen-Strait, who was named Endeavors’s senior director for migrant services and federal affairs the day President Joe Biden took office, brokered both deals. Lorenzen-Strait has weaved in and out of government for more than a decade. He worked at ICE from 2008 to May 2019, where his last responsibility included overseeing all family detention centers, which ICE has chosen not to use since Biden took office, even as it continues to pay to operate the empty facilities nationwide.
At ICE, Lorenzen-Strait reported directly to Johnson, who has overseen the agency under Biden. Lorenzen-Strait joined the Biden-Harris transition team in 2020, where he was responsible for “conducting interviews and vetting for political appointees” at HHS, the department that cares for unaccompanied migrant children who show up at the border.
While on the transition team, Lorenzen-Strait was the managing director of Lorenzen-Strait Consulting Services, which he launched after leaving ICE in 2019. He simultaneously consulted for his own firm, which advised Endeavors, while also working for the Biden-Harris transition team’s DHS cohort. On the DHS team, he may have learned of the incoming administration's plans to change border policies and pivot from the use of ICE family facilities.
Since 2001, ICE has operated large facilities that can hold migrant families. Its three family centers were each less than 23% occupied in February 2021, the month before it procured the contract. While space in ICE detention facilities was limited to 75% capacity during the coronavirus pandemic, the failure to use existing facilities was viewed as wasteful by the OIG.
Within two months of Biden taking office, Endeavors, an organization that had not received a government contract for more than $2 million until that point, was privately given the $87 million ICE contract.
In May 2021, Lorenzen-Strait began asking the public for donations to fly families detained in its hotels to destinations across the country when they were released from the hotels that Endeavors ran.
In July 2021, the Washington Examiner reported that ICE had banned Lorenzen-Strait from working on any such contracts after determining he had never been cleared to work on them in the first place.
The OIG began its investigation last May, following outcry from Republicans in the House and Senate. The inspector general released the results last month.
"ICE’s sole source contract with Endeavors resulted in millions of dollars being spent on unused hotel space," the inspector general's report states. "Endeavors did not meet new healthcare protocols or ensure proper COVID-19 testing for families. For example, families were not tested by ICE for COVID-19 prior to being transported to hotels and were not always tested by Endeavors staff upon arrival at or departure from hotels, putting migrant families and the outside population at risk of contracting COVID-19. Further, Endeavors did not follow required ICE standards to ensure the proper care for housing migrant families while such families were residing in its facilities."
ICE rejected the majority of the auditor's recommendations.
"We agree with ICE and its conclusion that Endeavors followed appropriate protocols and met the standard of care for migrant families in this contract," Endeavors said in a statement following the OIG investigation. "For Endeavors, lending our expertise to help ensure families are afforded care and services was simply the right thing to do, and consistent with our mission of compassionately serving vulnerable people in crisis."
In March, the American Accountability Foundation, a nonprofit watchdog group, sued the DHS in federal court for not responding to a Freedom of Information Act Request it had submitted a year earlier for documents about the contract. The documents AAF requested overlap with those House Republicans are now asking for.
ICE could request that the money be returned, Amey said, pointing to how Defense Department contractor TransDigm was asked to repay the government $21 million.
"The government can go back and ask for some kind of voluntary refund, but I don't think that they have much to go on," said Amey. "I would imagine Endeavors isn't going to oblige due to the fact that they rented these hotels out."
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ICE and Endeavors did not respond to requests about whether the $17 million will be repaid.