Overnight Defense: Watchdog to audit company's border wall contract | Pentagon to step up vetting of foreign students after Pensacola | Report finds former defense official sexually harassed staffers

Overnight Defense: Watchdog to audit company's border wall contract | Pentagon to step up vetting of foreign students after Pensacola | Report finds former defense official sexually harassed staffers

Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

 

THE TOPLINE: A Pentagon watchdog is auditing the contract awarded to a North Dakota company to build a portion of President TrumpDonald John TrumpMnuchin knocks Greta Thunberg's activism: Study economics and then 'come back' to us The Hill's Morning Report - House prosecutes Trump as 'lawless,' 'corrupt' What to watch for on Day 3 of Senate impeachment trial MORE's border wall.

The Defense Department's inspector general will audit the $400 million border wall contract given to Fisher Sand and Gravel Co., the inspector general said in a letter to House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonHillicon Valley: Trump turns up heat on Apple over gunman's phone | Mnuchin says Huawei won't be 'chess piece' in trade talks | Dems seek briefing on Iranian cyber threats | Buttigieg loses cyber chief House Democrats request briefings on Iranian cyber threats from DHS, FCC Democrats sound election security alarm after Russia's Burisma hack MORE (D-Miss.), dated Thursday.

Thompson requested the probe last week after worries that "inappropriate influence" affected the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' decision to hire Fisher to construct 31 miles of the wall in Yuma County, Arizona.  

The inspector general's letter answering Thompson confirmed that an audit would be announced "soon." 

"The company had never been awarded a construction contract before and their wall prototype was late and over budget," Thompson said in a statement. "Given the President's multiple endorsements of this company and the amount of taxpayer money at stake, I remain concerned about the possibility of inappropriate influence on the Army Corps' contracting decision."

Fisher's response: Tommy Fisher, the head of the company, said there would be "nothing to find" when looking at the contract, according to The Associated Press.

"We were told we were the lowest price and the best value," he said. "We look forward to working with the Army Corps of Engineers."

Fisher Sand and Gravel Co. said in a statement to The Hill that they are "committed to full cooperation" with the upcoming audit.

"We are excited to show our high quality work and this project gives us an opportunity to demonstrate the caliber of work our team has delivered to our customers for six decades, while helping to secure our southern border," the statement read.

The background: Trump promised during his campaign to build 450 to 500 miles of border wall by the end of his first term. As of Nov. 1, he has built 78 miles, according to the AP.

At the time Fisher was awarded the contract earlier this month, the Army Corps released a letter saying Fisher's contract was acceptable and the best priced.

But two administration officials familiar with the matter told AP that Trump pushed for Fisher to earn the contract. Fisher also appeared on Fox News repeatedly, advocating for his company.

 

REPORT FINDS FORMER OFFICIAL SEXUALLY HARASSED STAFFERS: The Pentagon's watchdog has found that a former top Department of Defense (DOD) civilian sexually harassed three women on his staff, frequently touching them and making sexual comments.

The DOD Office of the Inspector General on Thursday released a report on Guy Roberts, the former assistant secretary of Defense for nuclear programs. The report's findings "substantiated the allegations that Mr. Roberts engaged in a pattern of misconduct in which he sexually harassed women on his staff."

"Specifically, he frequently hugged them, touched them, and made sexual comments. In addition, he made jokes that many found inappropriate and offensive and which caused employees to feel uncomfortable," according to the report's summary.

When this started: The office began to look into sexual harassment accusations against Roberts in February after a complaint was passed on to the watchdog. Roberts resigned quietly in early April.

Asked to comment Thursday on the report and sexual harassment allegations against Roberts, top Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said he was "not familiar with that at all."

During the investigation, the agency interviewed Roberts and 18 witnesses, in addition to reviewing 4,053 official emails and other relevant documents.

The findings: The office determined that Roberts treated women on his staff differently, "and made deliberate, unwelcomed physical contact of a sexual nature by hugging, kissing, or touching" the three employees. He also "made deliberate, repeated, and unwelcomed verbal comments of a sexual nature," according to the report. 

Roberts's actions and comments "created an intimidating, hostile, and offensive work environment for the three women," and caused them "to fear damage to their professional reputations and to fear being fired if they rejected his physical contact or complained about his behavior."

Robert's response: Roberts told investigators that it was not his intent to sexually harass the women and that they didn't tell him his behavior was inappropriate or made them uncomfortable.

"I am surprised and dismayed by the conclusions contained in the report; specifically, that I sexually harassed and inappropriately touched the three employees and others," Roberts told the watchdog, according to the report.

But...: The office noted, however, that one of the women told Roberts "on several occasions that his behavior and comments were unwelcome and unacceptable."

Further, Roberts knew or should have known, "based on his experience and training, that the physical contact and sexually suggestive comments were completely inappropriate," the watchdog concluded.

 

PENTAGON TO TAKE BIGGER ROLE IN VETTING AFTER PENSACOLA: The Pentagon plans to take on a bigger role in vetting foreign students coming to train on U.S. military bases after a Saudi national shot and killed three people at a Navy base in Florida while there for aviation training.

Top Defense Department spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said Thursday that foreign students coming to the U.S. typically go through a home country vetting process, followed by scrutiny from the Department of Homeland Security and State Department, with the Pentagon "doing a touch as well."

"What we're looking to do is increase that, so we're looking to take the information we can get from the Department of State, from the host countries, and then take it and run it through systems we have," Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon. "What that system's going to look like, what that vetting is going to look like is being developed right now. That's part of the review."

He added that any new students brought into the U.S. training program "would go through the new vetting that we're looking to implement in the coming days," and until that process is complete no new students will be allowed into the program.

The shooting and aftermath: Four people including the gunman were killed and eight others were injured during a shooting at a naval air base in Pensacola, Fla., last week. The FBI has identified the shooter as Saudi Royal Air Force 2nd Lt. Mohammed Alshamrani. 

The Navy announced Tuesday that it had grounded hundreds of Saudi Arabian military aviation students as part of an "operational pause" across three Naval stations in Florida.

The roughly 850 Saudi military students currently in the country for training have been restricted to  classroom training during the stand down.

Hoffman said the stand down on training is restricted to the Saudi students and does not apply to students from other countries.

Program still important: Hoffman said that the training of foreign students through the U.S. military is "considered a vital tool" as it increases partner countries' capabilities, their ability to interact with U.S. forces in joint measures and to help build cultural understanding.

Since 2000, more than 1 million foreign students have gone through training programs in the United States and programs Washington had conducted overseas

 

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

Former Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisLawmakers push back at Pentagon's possible Africa drawdown Overnight Defense: Book says Trump called military leaders 'dopes and babies' | House reinvites Pompeo for Iran hearing | Dems urge Esper to reject border wall funding request Trump called top military brass 'a bunch of dopes and babies' in 2017: book MORE will speak at a Washington Post Live event at 9 a.m. in Washington, D.C. 

 

ICYMI

-- The Hill: US military tests previously banned ballistic missile

-- The Hill: Pentagon's top Asia policy official to resign

-- The Hill: White House vows to appeal ruling blocking use of military funds for border wall

-- The Hill: North Korea accuses US of 'hostile provocation' in missile test criticism

-- The Hill: FBI investigating NJ shooting as domestic terrorism

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-- The Hill: Opinion: What is that big US military for, anyhow?