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It must have come as a shock to the investors, lobbyists and staff of Bajagua to be featured so prominently on the front page of The Wall Street Journal last week (“Smell Test: How Politics Influenced a Big Clean-Up Deal“).

It must have also come as a shock to the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune that has become a pro-bono PR firm for Bajagua. After all, Scot Paltrow, one of the Journal’s top investigative reporters wrote at the beginning of his lengthy Jan. 28 article that in order to solve the problem of cross-border pollution,

… the American government has chosen an unusual solution. Without any competitive bidding, the U.S. gave Bajagua LLC, a start-up company with no experience in treating waste water, sole authority to build and operate a treatment plant in Mexico.

The tale of Bajagua’s success in getting the contract involves, among other things, well-timed campaign contributions to local members of Congress and other political figures. The firm also enlisted people with crucial connections as lobbyists. And when that didn’t prove enough, Bajagua obtained backing from Vice President Dick Cheney and the White House, which cleared away opposition by federal agencies, several former senior federal agency officials say.

I found it fascinating to see the U-T scramble to turn the unraveling of Bajagua into a PR triumph for the San Marcos firm of Enrique Landa and Jim Simmons. After the first Journal story last week, Bajagua met with the U-T editorial board. That meeting, which became the subject of a Feb. 2 U-T article, “Land for Tijuana sewage plant located, says San Marcos firm“, that (despite the headline) actually reported that there is no site for the project (as my sources in Mexico have also confirmed). From the U-T,

… An engineer with the International Boundary and Water Commission, the U.S. arm of the binational agency overseeing Bajagua’s plans, said he was not aware of any land arrangements between the company and the Mexican government. “If it were the case, that would be part of the … puzzle to get this project done,” said Carlos Peña at the boundary commission’s headquarters in El Paso, Texas.

Then on Monday Scot Paltrow of The Wall Street Journal once again scooped the U-T by disclosing that the White House no longer believes Bajagua to be a sure thing. Here is the first paragraph of the Journal‘s story,

The White House, stepping into a controversy over cross-border pollution from Mexico, asked Congress for $71.7 million to enhance treatment of sewage drifting from Tijuana to communities in Southern California if a plan to use a private contractor falls through.

The U-T’s Mike Lee came to the same conclusion on Tuesday, but his article was undermined by a strange headline, “Bush budget keeps out of sewage controversy” that was a direct response to the first sentence of the Journal’s story. Here is the first paragraph of the U-T story,

President Bush’s 2008 budget, released yesterday, provides up to $66 million for upgrading sewage treatment along the San Diego-Tijuana border. But that money isn’t earmarked for the Bajagua project, a controversial wastewater facility slated to be built near the confluence of the Tijuana and Alamar rivers in Mexico. Instead, it’s reserved for improvements to an existing treatment plant in San Ysidro in case the long-delayed Bajagua deal falls apart.

The story of the Bajagua scandal and sole-source no-bid contracts and blocked sewage solutions by our congressional delegation, is an example of what Paul Krugman recently called the “Green-Zoning of America” or how “under the guise of promoting a conservative agenda, the Bush administration has created a supersized version of the 19th-century spoils system.” Of course the spoils system is all that San Diego knows which is why the U-T has become such a champion of Bajagua.

Thankfully, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times continue to expose the problems associated with the federal government’s reliance on politically based outsourcing. In the launch of the series in the Times on government contracting “In Washington, Contractors Take On Biggest Role Ever” a quote from Harry Truman sums up the issue nicely, “I have never yet found a contractor who, if not watched, would not leave the government holding the bag.” In the case of Bajagua, the residents of border beaches have just been left to swim and surf in raw sewage.

SERGE DEDINA

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