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On the morning of June 14, several employees of the Texas Department of Information Resources (DIR), a centralized IT department for the state government, started asking about a strange project coming from the office of Governor Greg Abbott (OOG). Having set up a new web domain for them, borderwall.texas.gov, they were now hearing about a payment system for it that didn’t yet exist. “Maybe I missed this update…,” DIR executive director Amanda Crawford emailed the executive leadership team at 11:28 a.m. “Anyone have any knowledge of this?”
“I’m not aware of any work,” replied Chief Operating Officer Dale Richardson. “I’ll check.”
Two days later, Abbott announced the state of Texas would begin accepting donations via a crowdfunding campaign to build a border wall.
This email exchange, as well as other documents Motherboard obtained via a public records request, shed light on how quickly a crowdfunding campaign to build a border wall was put into place, as well as the rushed nature of the project as the office responsible for setting up the donations page scrambled to meet the governor’s timetable so he could announce the project during a scheduled press conference.
The emails shed light on yet another Republican attempt to build a crowdfunded border wall after Donald Trump’s wall-building efforts failed. A previous effort led by Steve Bannon not only failed but also resulted in Bannon being indicted for alleged money laundering.
Abbott’s crowdfunding for a border wall came as he appropriated $250 million for the project using a state of emergency declaration critics say is being abused. That same emergency declaration permitted DIR to circumvent normal procurement rules in order to spend $46,000 setting up the web page and crowdfunding site, according to emails released to Motherboard. Brittney Booth Paylor, a spokesperson for DIR, told Motherboard the $46,000 “was for the costs associated with moving content across servers in order to accommodate additional traffic to www.borderwall.texas.gov.”
At one point a government official contemplated launching the project as a GoFundMe campaign, only to be advised by a Chris Keel, a consultant at Deloitte which has a contract as the “caretaker” of Texas.gov, that the crowdfunding platform could “pull it down and say it violates their ‘standards.'” Keel did not respond to an email from Motherboard asking what GoFundMe standards he thought the crowdfunding campaign potentially violated. Bannon’s effort used GoFundMe before being shut down.
Initially, the governor’s office had a much broader vision for the project as a kind of quasi-social media platform to rally support for a border wall, including “webpages to store testimonials” as well as “photos/videos in support of this effort,” according to an email sent at 11:19 p.m. on June 14 by Heidi Langdon, director of the Chief Operations Office of DIR.
Further, officials at DIR relayed that the governor’s office had requested five types of payment options: credit card, bank account transfer, text message payment, check or cash sent via mail, and cryptocurrency. DIR and Deloitte staffers scrambled to get these payment methods into place with just 48 hours’ notice, including trying to find a Bitcoin payment service authorized for government contracts under the state procurement laws. They quickly settled on BitPay and Stripe as possible solutions, but lacked the time to set either up properly. As of this writing, the donation page still only accepts credit cards. Jan Jahosky, a spokesperson for BitPay, declined to disclose whether anyone from DIR or the Texas Governor’s office contacted them regarding the border wall project.
The fact that Abbott’s office seriously considered—and may still be pursuing—cryptocurrency as a form of payment for the border wall donations further undermines his office’s claims that it would be “ensuring full transparency and accountability to our fellow Texans,” as spokesperson Renae Eze told the Texas Tribune about donations made thus far using fake names, considering one of the main selling points of cryptocurrency is its anonymity (though that anonymity is often not as strong as users would like).
This issue was not lost on DIR officials. After the state comptroller’s office informed DIR’s chief technology officer John Hoffman on June 17 that the comptroller has “no objection to the use of cryptocurrency,” it would be up to other state agencies like DIR or the governor’s office to provide “detailed donor information.” Hoffman forwarded the email to two DIR employees with the comment, “Now…to figure out how.”
As of July 14, the border wall donation project has received $829,000, according to the Texas Tribune. Not including the $46,000 taxpayers paid to launch the project to begin with, this money could fund approximately 1,000 feet of the cheapest rate the Trump administration paid for any section of its wall. At the most expensive rate of $34 million per mile, this crowdfunded booty would pay for 121 feet and six inches of wall.