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How Tommy Fisher Used Fox News To Wangle Big ‘Border Wall’ Contracts

Fox News has unprecedented influence over President Donald Trump’s decision-making. Trump’s worldview is shaped by the hours of propagandistic and sycophantic programming he often watches in a day, as well as his private consultations with many of the network’s stars on a wide variety of topics. As a result, Fox’s commentators have at times dictated the president’s policy agenda and political strategyharnessed the news cycle by directing his attention to their particular obsessions, provided staffers for his administration, and hand-picked the recipients of his pardons.

And now, the network is emerging as a platform that can determine who could receive hefty federal contracts.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Trump has “alarmed” military commanders and Department of Homeland Security officials by aggressively lobbying them to grant a border wall contract to Fisher Industries, a North Dakota-based construction company whose CEO, Tommy Fisher, has regularly appeared on Fox and other conservative outlets to promote his company’s bid.

Fisher claims that his company can build a border wall both faster and cheaper than his competitors thanks to a patent-pending installation system, but the Army Corps of Engineers determined that Fisher’s design “did not meet its requirements and lacked regulatory approvals” and that the firm’s previous work on a barrier project “came in late and over budget,” the Post reported. Rejected through the procurement process, Fisher is trying to go around it through the right-wing media, a method that has allowed him to reach the president. Trump is now trying to sidestep the contracting process because, as Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) explained to the Post, he “had seen [Fisher] on television” — specifically on Fox — “advocating for his version of the barrier.”

Fisher has used a Fox-centric PR strategy to directly pitch the president in hopes of obtaining a federal contract, making at least 10 appearances on Fox News and its sister network, Fox Business, since January 2018, according to a Media Matters review. Programs the president regularly watches, including Fox & Friends and The Ingraham Angle, have repeatedly granted Fisher an uncritical platform to shill for his company.

Fisher’s strategy mimics that of K Street lobbyists who pay off TV pundits to promote their messages during on-air appearances and lawyers who put their clients and their relatives on Fox to ask the president for pardons.

The CEO has honed his pitch to appeal to the president in particular, as demonstrated by his March 5 appearance on Fox & Friends, during which co-host Ainsley Earhardt asked him to explain “why should the president, or why should his administration, choose your company?”

Fisher first appealed to the president as a businessman, saying Trump should know that his company would do the work for less money than other companies, get it completed faster, and throw in access roads and other additions.

He went on to describe his company as “the first responder” of the industry, appealing to Trump’s well-known obsession with police officers and firefighters.

And he also tried to link the bid to one of Trump’s notable construction successes, the renovation of the Wollman Rink in Central Park in the 1980s. “I think he’ll understand,” Fisher argued, “just like the Central Park deal with the ice skating rink, if you need it done now, nothing against government bureaucracy, but it takes time, so you need an expert to come in there and do it now and do it right.”

Earhardt ended the interview by giving Trump another reason to prefer Fisher: “You might be able to build it just in time for that election, too.”

And Fox’s promotion of Fisher’s bid has not been limited to the network’s supposed “opinion” shows. On April 19, the network’s flagship “news” broadcastSpecial Report, ran a packaged report that essentially served as an infomercial for Fisher’s proposal. Introduced by anchor Bret Baier and reported by national correspondent William La Jeunesse, the segment featured an interview with Fisher and credulously repeated his claims that he could construct the wall “faster, better, and cheaper.”

All of this laudatory coverage has had Fisher’s desired effect, with the president reportedly promoting the company’s bid in meetings with senior military and DHS officials and forcing them to explain “that the president could not just pick a company” to get the contract in defiance of the federal procurement process.

Fisher harnessed the incredible power of Fox’s hold on the president to get much closer than he should have to taxpayer dollars. He won’t be the last to try to do so.

Dakota Protesters Celebrate Federal Decision – But Know It’s Not Over

By Ernest Scheyder and Terray Sylvester

CANNON BALL, N.D. (Reuters) – Thousands of protesters in North Dakota celebrated after the federal government ruled against a controversial pipeline project on Sunday, even though many recognized that the fight is likely to continue into next year.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it rejected an application to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to tunnel under Lake Oahe, a reservoir formed by a dam on the Missouri River.

The decision came after months of protests from Native Americans and climate activists, who argued that the 1,172-mile (1,885-km) Dakota Access Pipeline would damage sacred lands and could contaminate the tribe’s water source.

The mood has been upbeat since the rejection was announced on Sunday afternoon at the Oceti Sakowin camp in Cannon Ball, North Dakota. Activists were seen hugging and letting out war cries in response to the news.

Still, with the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump supportive of the project, activists worried a reversal of the decision could be in the offing.

“This is a temporary celebration. I think this is just a rest,” said Charlotte Bad Cob, 30, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “With a new government it could turn and we could be at it again.”

The camp’s numbers have swelled in recent days, as hundreds of U.S. veterans have flocked to North Dakota in support of the protesters. Some of those in a long line of traffic along Highway 1806 heading into the camp hollered and honked their horns after the news was announced.

The pipeline, owned by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners LP, is complete except for a one-mile segment to run under Lake Oahe. That stretch required an easement from federal authorities.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it will analyze possible alternate routes, although any other route is also likely to cross the Missouri River.

FIGHT MAY BE A ‘LONG HAUL’

Standing Rock Chairman Dave Archambault II, in a statement, said he hoped ETP, North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple and Trump would respect the decision.

“When it comes to infrastructure development in Indian Country and with respect to treaty lands, we must strive to work together to reach decisions that reflect the multifaceted considerations of tribes,” he said.

Trump has yet to react to Sunday’s decision. He could direct authorities to approve the line, even if before he takes over from Democratic President Barack Obama on Jan. 20 federal authorities will be studying alternative routes.

Tom Goldtooth, a Lakota from Minnesota, and a co-founder of Indigenous Environmental Network, said he expects Trump to try to reverse the decision.

“I think we’re going to be in this for the long haul. That’s what my fear is,” he said.

Energy Transfer said late Sunday they do not intend to reroute the line, calling the Obama Administration’s decision a “political action.”

In November, ETP moved equipment to the edge of the Missouri River to prepare for drilling, and later asked a federal court to disregard the Army Corps, and declare that the company could finish the line. That ruling is still pending.

Several veterans recently arrived in camp told Reuters they thought Sunday’s decision, which came just as Oceti Sakowin has seen an influx of service members, was a tactic to convince protesters to leave.

“That drill is still on the drill pad. Until that’s gone, this is not over,” said Matthew Crane, 32, from Buffalo, who arrived with a contingent of veterans last week.

(Writing by David Gaffen; Editing by Tom Hogue)

IMAGE: Native American “water protectors” celebrate  that the Army Corps of Engineers has denied an easement for the $3.8 billion Dakota Access Pipeline inside of the Oceti Sakowin camp as demonstrations continue against plans to pass the Dakota Access pipeline adjacent to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, near Cannon Ball, North Dakota, December 4, 2016.  REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

With New EPA Water Rule, Obama Again Takes Executive Action On Environment

By William Yardley, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

In April 1989, a Michigan developer named John Rapanos dumped fill on 54 acres of wetlands he owned to make way for a shopping center. He did not have a permit, and when the state told him to stop, he refused. Courts found him in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Prosecutors wanted to send him to prison.

Rapanos took his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which found that the wetlands on his property, about 20 miles from a river that drained into Lake Huron, did not fall under the Clean Water Act’s jurisdiction over discharges into “navigable waters.”

Rapanos became something of a celebrity among property rights advocates, but the ruling raised as many questions as it answered. Although the court upheld federal protections for wetlands and streams when they connected with navigable waters, it left unclear what constituted a connection.

Now, nearly a decade later, the Obama administration is seeking to clarify those ambiguities, and the effort is causing controversy of its own. This week, the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to release a new rule to protect a significantly larger percentage of streams and wetlands that provide habitat for wildlife and sources of drinking water.

The move is another example of President Barack Obama taking executive action on environmental and climate issues regardless of whether he has the support of Congress. The administration has already protected millions of acres from oil and gas development and is expected to set aside more, even as it has allowed the expansion of oil and gas drilling elsewhere. It plans to issue new rules this summer to reduce carbon emissions from power plants.

EPA officials say up to 60 percent of the nation’s streams and millions of acres of wetlands lack clear protection from pollution under existing regulations. The new clean water rule would for the first time clearly define which tributaries and wetlands are protected under federal law.

“There is nothing complicated about the idea that we should protect the tributary system that flows into our nation’s rivers,” said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan who previously led the prosecution of environmental crimes at the Justice Department. “What is more difficult is deciding when to protect wetlands, which perform essential ecological functions but often make it difficult or impossible for landowners to develop their property.”

The new rule, drafted by both the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, has been under attack since it was proposed in draft form last year, with lawmakers, farmers, business groups, and some local governments often coordinating the efforts.

The American Farm Bureau has led the opposition.

“The proposed rule provides none of the clarity and certainty it promises,” the bureau wrote in a letter to Congress. “Instead, it creates confusion and risk by providing the agencies with almost unlimited authority to regulate, at their discretion, any low spot where rainwater collects.” That could include farm ditches, agricultural ponds, and isolated wetlands, it said.

The farm bureau started a social media campaign, using the Twitter hashtag #Ditchtherule. The EPA created its own, telling supporters to #Ditchthemyth. In a blog post in April, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy said the agency may need to look at “better defining how protected waters are significant.”

“A key part of the (new) Clean Water Rule is protecting water bodies, like streams and wetlands, which have strong impacts downstream,” she wrote.

At issue is the Supreme Court’s ruling that only water bodies with a “significant nexus” to navigable waterways fall under the Clean Water Act’s regulatory authority. But what that means has left room for debate for years.

McCarthy conceded that the agency’s initial definition of tributaries was “confusing and ambiguous” and could “pick up erosion in a farmer’s field, when that’s not our aim.” The agency was also revisiting how it addressed ditches, she wrote, “limiting protection to ditches that function like tributaries and can carry pollution downstream.” She also sought to assure local governments that the agency “did not intend to change” how stormwater systems are treated.

Several bills aimed at stopping the rule from taking effect have been introduced in Congress, including one sponsored by Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans from Arizona. In a letter to McCarthy this month, the senators wrote that Arizona’s “vast majority of ‘waters’ are desert washes that are part of ephemeral systems and often found at substantial distances from traditional navigable or interstate waters.”

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Under the proposed rule, they said, “every small ephemeral system of limited function, remote from traditional navigable or interstate waters, and with no practical ability to influence the physical, chemical, or biological integrity of those downstream waters, would be regulated.”

Arizona is “literally crisscrossed with man-made canals that are essential for critical water delivery,” they wrote, and under the new rule, “it is possible that every mile of these canals” will now fall under the Clean Water Act.

In another arid state next door, Sanders Moore, director of Environment New Mexico, said waterways there had been put at risk under narrow interpretations of the existing rule that did not protect streams that are often dry until snowmelt or stormwater runs through them.

“When they run, they pick up all of those pollutants and take them into larger rivers,” she said.

Ken Kopocis, deputy assistant administrator for the EPA’s office of water, said the agency had heard concerns similar to those expressed by the Arizona senators, and that the final rule would clarify that washes and other ephemeral streams would not fall under regulation unless they had “bed and banks” and “ordinary high water marks” that indicated an active connection to waters that do fall under regulation.

“We understood and heard a lot from people in the Southwest that we need to be more clear, and the final rule will be more clear on this,” he said.

He also said the agency was not revising its policies on the vast network of canals and waterways that provide irrigation and drinking water in much of the arid West.

Although Rapanos won at the Supreme Court, he faced other penalties for his actions. He and other defendants in the case eventually settled with the government, agreeing to pay a $150,000 penalty. Rapanos was also required to construct 100 acres of wetlands and buffer areas to offset the 54 acres he filled.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

File photo: Ducks come in for a landing in the flow-regulating wetlands at the Tres Rios Ecosystem Restoration Project, construction of which was managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers LA District’s Arizona/Nevada Area Office, in Phoenix’s West Valley. February 14, 2013. Via U.S. Army Corps of Architects/Flickr

Corps Deals Death Blow To ‘Glades Plan

Just when there seemed to be a glimmer of hope for the Everglades, along comes the lumbering U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to muck up the works.

Last week, a review board of the Corps stunned everybody by delaying the approval of the Central Everglades Planning Project, an essential and widely hailed step in saving what remains of the Everglades.

Because of the board’s surprising decision not to act (which, naturally, happened on Earth Day), CEPP could be left out of the public water bill pending in Congress. New federal funding wouldn’t be available for years, a potentially crippling setback for cleanup efforts from the Kissimmee River to the Keys.

At immediate risk are the Indian River Lagoon, the St. Lucie estuary at the mouth of the Atlantic and the Caloosahatchee River emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.

Every rainy season the Corps opens the floodgates from Lake Okeechobee uncorking millions of gallons of water heavily polluted by farms and ranches. The choking torrent eventually reaches both coasts.

The Atlantic side is stricken by massive algae blooms that suffocate oyster beds and sea grass flats, and turn the water slimy hues of green. On the Gulf, the polluted outflow has been linked to toxic red tides that foul the beaches with dead fish and kill manatees.

While the environmental damage is terrible, the economic impact is also grave. Tourism, the recreational marine industry and real-estate sales suffer during the months of heavy discharges from Lake Okeechobee.

CEPP is actually a collection of engineering projects designed to cleanse the polluted water from mid-Florida agricultural areas and send it south to the Everglades, instead of pumping it out toward the estuaries, inland waterways and oceans.

The concept isn’t hotly disputed. Environmentalists support it, and so does Governor Rick Scott. That’s because Big Sugar is on board, too.

Last year, President Obama put CEPP on his “We Can’t Wait” list of urgent public works, but evidently the Army Corps has one, too. It’s called the “We Can’t Get Our Act Together” list.

From one administration to the next, the Corps never changes. One of the most turgid and impenetrable bureaucracies in Washington, on a good day it moves like a turtle on Ambien.

Letters to the Corps leadership urging prompt action on CEPP were sent by Governor Scott, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and several members of Congress. They might as well have been writing to the Tooth Fairy.

The hitch in approving CEPP by the agency’s Civil Works Review Board has been blamed on a “small deviation” between the Corps’ draft of CEPP and that of the South Florida Water Management District, which would pay for half the project.

At issue is the wording about water-quality standards, a subject of contention throughout the long restoration process. The differences between the Corps’ version and the state’s were said to be “minor,” so surely they can be smoothed out after the funding for the project is secured.

A media statement from the Corps described as “extremely well done” plans laid out in the 8,000-page CEPP report, but said “additional time is needed to finalize the document assessment prior to releasing the report for the final 30-day state and agency review.”

The problem is that there’s hardly any time left. However, nobody speaking on behalf of the Corps has displayed much concern about the looming Congressional vote.

Although the Civil Works Review Board said the CEPP might be ready by late June, that might be too late for the House and Senate, which aren’t blameless in the Everglades muddle.

It’s been seven years since Congress passed a water appropriations act, and the fear is that this year’s will be the last for another long stretch.

Eric Bush, a planning and policy chief with the Corps’ Jacksonville district, said the agency has moved with exceptional haste in evaluating the central Everglades plan. A project so complex typically would require half a dozen years or more of study, he added.

Which makes it merely miraculous that the Corps completes any projects at all. Of the postponement in releasing the CEPP, Bush said, “It isn’t a stalling tactic.”

No, it’s worse than that. It’s a killing tactic.

“This delay means Congress will be unable to act on (CEPP) for years,” said Erik Eikenberg, CEO of the Everglades Foundation. “Once again the Corps is bogged down in its own bureaucracy … and determined to follow a trail of red tape that leads to public frustration.”

A blogger who attended the review board meeting wrote in the Palm Beach Post that the panel spent almost two hours discussing the history of the Everglades, rhapsodizing about its status as a national treasure on par with the Grand Canyon.

One by one, Corps officers spoke in committed tones about the importance of saving South Florida’s vast and “slowly dying” watershed.

Then, in a move that may hasten the dying, they decided to go back and dawdle some more over the rescue plan.

(Carl Hiaasen is a columnist for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at: 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132.)

Photo: rickz via Flickr