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The Journal Gazette

Saturday, March 03, 2018 1:00 am

Border wall firm facing scrutiny over past practices

Associated Press

OMAHA, Neb. – A tiny Nebraska startup awarded the first border wall construction project under President Donald Trump is the offshoot of a construction firm that was sued repeatedly for failing to pay subcontractors and accused in a 2016 government audit of shady billing practices.

SWF Constructors, which lists just one employee in its Omaha office, won the $11 million federal contract in November as part of a project to replace a little more than 2 miles of a current fence with post-style barriers 30 feet high in Calexico, California.

It's the first wall contract awarded in the Trump administration outside of eight prototypes that were built last year in San Diego. The project represents a sliver of the president's plan that was central to his presidential campaign promise for a wall at the border with Mexico.

Richard Silva, who is listed in government documents as the primary contact for both SWF and Coastal Environmental Group, which online government documents list as its owner, did not return numerous phone and email messages left by The Associated Press seeking comment.

In 2011, the federal government sued Coastal on behalf of Anderson's client as part of a multimillion-dollar lead cleanup project at an EPA Superfund site in northeast Omaha. The lawsuit accused Coastal of failing to pay the subcontractor nearly $400,000 in labor and equipment costs and of reneging on a profit sharing agreement that cheated the subcontractor out of about $1.7 million. The lawsuit was settled in 2015 for an undisclosed amount.

In 2014, Coastal was again sued by the federal government for failing to pay another subcontractor more than $175,000 for construction of concrete docks at the U.S. Coast Guard facility at Fire Island, New York. The lawsuit was settled in 2015, also for an undisclosed amount.

A year later, an audit by the U.S. Interior Department found $2 million in questionable spending that should have flagged it as a problem company, but did not.

“It was probably an oversight,” said Nancy DiPaolo, with the Interior Department's Office of the Inspector General.

Coastal's new Omaha company, SWF, is not registered with either the Nebraska Secretary of State's office or the Nebraska Department of Labor, which is required for any company doing business within the state.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth, Texas, bid the Calexico wall project, according to federal records. The agency told The Associated Press that it would provide information on the process used to select and vet SWF, but had provided no such information by late Friday.