NBC 5 Investigates: Texas National Guard Spends Millions of Border Money on Rental Cars, Office Supplies

More than 3,500 pages of records detail $62 Million Spent in Border Security Mission

Documents obtained by NBC 5 Investigates detail how the Texas National Guard has spent $62 million and counting on a mission to help secure the Texas/Mexico border.

National Guard receipts detail millions spent to rental cars, televisions, copy machines and office trailers. Troops also racked up tens of thousands of dollars in state credit card charges buying office supplies used to set-up remote work locations for guard troops.

The guard deployed very quickly when Gov. Rick Perry first ordered them to the border in 2014; records show that set off a flurry of spending.

Some of the expenses are for things you might expect, like hotels.  Records show more than $10 million was spent to house the troops at hotels near the border.

The records also detail expenses for items including basics like food, bottled water and bug spray.

And then there are rental cars. A lot of rental cars.

The records show the guard has already spent $1.8 million on rental cars and some of the priciest rentals were not driven very far.

Receipts show one van was rented for $1,100 and only driven 47 miles. Another receipt shows a van traveled just nine miles and they paid $1,300.

Brig. Gen. Patrick Hamilton is in charge of the mission.

In an interview, NBC 5 Investigates asked if it was a good use of taxpayer money to spend $1,300 for a rental car only driven nine miles.

"We activated very rapidly. We made estimates on what it was going to take to get our guys around," said Hamilton.

It turns out the guard didn't need as many rentals as they initially thought.

"We rented that first set of vehicles as we noticed we weren't using them we turned them in," said Hamilton.

The guard was sent to the border to be a visible deterrent, so why not drive military vehicles?

Hamilton decided his troops should travel through neighborhoods more low key, so people who live near the border didn't feel like they were living in a militarized zone.

Plus he said the rentals saved wear and tear costs on military trucks.

"It was more efficient and it was also less obtrusive, less noticeable," said Hamilton.

Still, for $1.8 million the state could have bought more than 50 vans like the ones they rented. Or that money could have paid the first year salaries for about 30 DPS troopers the state is hiring to bolster border security.

Documents obtained by NBC 5 Investigates detail how the Texas National Guard has spent $62 million, and counting, on a mission to help secure the Texas/Mexico border.

NBC 5 Investigates found cars aren't the only thing the guard rents.

Through an open records request with the Texas National Guard, NBC 5 Investigates obtained more than 3,500 pages of expense reports and receipts detailing the guard's expenditures for Operation Strong Safety.

Records show more than $85,000 on copy machine rentals and hundreds of thousands of dollars to rent office trailers and portable toilets.

The guard even went to places like Rent-A-Center, spending more than $12,000 at various outlets to rent TV monitors.

Which raises questions about whether renting will cost more over time than buying.

Hamilton told NBC 5 Investigates they "didn't know how long the mission was going to go."

Records show more than $27,000 was spent on office supplies like pens, staplers, binders, tape, shredders, highlighters and other items bought by guard members using state purchase cards.

The general insists all of it necessary to set-up remote officers for soldiers on the ground.

"Three shifts a day, 45 locations, over 100 miles. That requires some office supplies," said Hamilton.

"With any operation there's always, there's always a certain amount of waste, mismanagement and maybe misspending," said Texas Sen. Juan Hinojosa (D-Dist. 20), who represents the McAllen area along the border.

Hinojosa said a senate committee plans to look closely at all of the border expenses.

"We intend to ask those questions because we need to make sure taxpayer money was spent wisely," said Hinojosa.

That may include questions about some costly mistakes.

Records obtained by NBC 5 Investigates show the state guard had to cut a $117,000 check to the federal government to pay for damage to spotting scopes mounted on top of federally-owned Humvees.

Texas National Guard Troops smashed them driving under low bridges not once, but twice.

"We have to reimburse the federal government for the damage," said Hamilton.

Whatever the cost, rancher Mike Vickers said the mission is worth it.

He's seen fewer illegal immigrants crossing his land since the guard arrived in 2014 along with more Department of Public Safety State Troopers and Border Patrol agents.

"If the state can provide those resources with DPS agents and National Guard, I'm all for it, regardless of the cost," said Vickers.

"There's always money involved. These operations are not simple," said Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez.

Sheriff's deputies in Brooks County said the number of illegal immigrants dying while making the trek through the country is down by about 20 percent compared to last year.

Martinez is convinced the guard is helping.

"There are a lot of moving parts and they're just one part of that. You've got your Border Patrol too where they increased their assets," said Martinez.

But other local sheriffs argue the National Guard expenses are ridiculous.

"It's just a waste of money. You're throwing the money down the drain because you're not accomplishing anything," said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio.

Lucio is part of the Texas Border Sheriff's Coalition who believe the money would have been better spent to build up local law enforcement agencies in the Rio Grande Valley, a more permanent solution than the Guard's short-term deployment.

"This is not a fix, not even a temporary fix," said Lucio.

The guard has no power to arrest anyone so it's dependent on other agencies to help capture people.

When a guard unit spots someone trying to sneak across the border, they call the Texas Department of Public Safety. DPS then often notifies the Border Patrol -- which has authority to enforce federal immigration law.

In April, NBC 5 Investigates uncovered records that show when the guard calls, sometimes the Border Patrol does not respond or doesn't respond fast enough to catch people -- raising questions about coordination and whether the guard is the most effective solution.

"They don't have arrest powers. They are not very cost effective," said Hinojosa.

"I'm confident that we have been the best stewards of taxpayer dollars that we could be on this mission," said Hamilton.

Hamilton said the mission is actually under budget but some legislators still vow to look closely at where the millions went.

"There will be situation where money maybe could be put to better use and we intend to review all of those costs and expenses," said Hinojosa.

The $62 million the guard spent so far is just for one part of a much larger $800 million state border security plan. Much of that money is being spent by DPS which has sent state troopers to the border.

The DPS has declined to release expense receipts. The agency is now suing the Texas Attorney General after the AG ruled NBC 5 should be able to see the records.


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