The Fence to Nowhere

Jim Campbell was a contractor before he became an Arizona retiree, so he happens to know a little about getting construction projects completed. He also happens to be avidly involved in efforts to stem what he and thousands of others see as an unholy tide of illegal immigrants streaming over the U.S.?Mexico border. So when the Minutemen--those "citizen watchdogs" who have been setting up vigilante border patrols throughout the Southwest--announced plans to build a fence along a section of the Arizona-Mexico border, it seemed to Campbell like a good time to step up and make a difference.

A couple of years later and $100,000 lighter, Campbell's not so sure it was a good idea. In fact, he calls the people running the Minutemen's border-fence project "a bunch of felons."

When he first contacted the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC)--the most prominent of the two major Minutemen organizations and the sponsors of the fence project--in early May 2006, he was enthusiastic about his vision: "miles and miles of steel!" Campbell offered to donate $100,000 immediately so the Minutemen could buy steel posts--the first step in building an "Israeli style" security fence--and install them in time for the groundbreaking ceremony. He took out a loan on his home and wired the money to the MCDC's parent organization, the Washington, D.C.?based Declaration Alliance. Campbell was told his was the largest single donation out of the thousands that were pouring in for the fence project.

But when Campbell attended the MCDC's big groundbreaking event a few weeks later, the five-strand barbed-wire fence being erected by volunteers was a far cry from what he thought he had funded. After a flurry of negotiations with the MCDC's president, Chris Simcox, Campbell agreed to spend another $63,000 of his own money on steel posts for a "serious" fence at another site--believing the MCDC would later repay him.

A year later, with nothing more to show for his money either in fence construction or reimbursement, he filed a lawsuit for $1.2 million seeking reimbursement and damages. In a letter to his lawyer, he observes that his donation "will have been squandered in a seemingly well-intentioned but short-lived ?monument to deceit' on the border. It is clear to me now that this fence project was conceived as a grand facade--a scheme--to attract endless streams of donations from the public who placed blind faith (as I did) in both the sincerity and trustworthiness of its promoters."

Welcome to the world of the Minutemen, where all-American values provide a nice storefront for a financial black hole that vacuums up hundreds of thousands of donors' dollars. The group fits into a long tradition of right-wing political organizing that runs from the resurrected Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s to the tax-protest movement of the 1980s and the militias of the 1990s. In the end, these efforts are mostly scams: They serve up a heady concoction of jingoistic fervor, bigoted xenophobia, and paranoid conspiracy theories as a means to salve all that ails the patriotic soul--but largely they have the mysterious effect of separating their fellow right-wingers from their money. And as these groups dissolve into scandal and infighting, they leave far more radical splinter groups in their wake.

* * *

To understand the Minutemen, it helps to consider their origins: They are, after all, essentially a militia. When Chris Simcox began organizing civilian border-watch patrols in early 2003 in his hometown of Tombstone, Arizona, he called his outfit the Tombstone Militia, eventually changed to the Civil Homeland Defense Corps. Simcox incorporated "Minuteman" into the name of his operation in 2005 when he hooked up with a California ex-Marine named Jim Gilchrist, who had founded a similar group he called the Minuteman Project. Both groups have consistently identified with the "militia" (or "patriot") movement, which in the 1990s revolved around hysterical fears that a cadre of government conspirators intended to start rounding up gun owners and other citizens and placing them in concentration camps. The Minutemen blend this conspiracy theory with their own special brand of xenophobia--notably, the claim that Latino immigrants are part of a grand "reconquista" plot by Mexico to reclaim the Southwestern United States. And, like nearly every right-wing populist movement from which the Minutemen are descended, they have crumbled under the weight of financial mismanagement, competing egos, and political infighting.

The Simcox-Gilchrist partnership produced a national sensation in April 2005, when dozens of volunteers took part in the Minutemen's month-long border-watch operation. At times, journalists and camera crews outnumbered the actual watchers; it made great prime-time content for FOX News and CNN's resident anti-immigrant talking head, Lou Dobbs. Simcox and Gilchrist were the faces of the movement, and they appeared on air so frequently that they practically became household names.

Their synergy, however, was short-lived. That fall, Gilchrist and Simcox had discussed handing over the Minutemen's financial and public-relations operations to a conservative Beltway organization called Diener Consultants and an associated outfit called the Declaration Alliance, run by onetime Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes. Both groups had been consultants in Gilchrist's failed congressional bid earlier that year, and Gilchrist later told his board members that the Diener Consultants and Keyes' organization "stole my money." He wanted nothing further to do with them. Simcox, on the other hand, wanted to continue.

So in December 2005, they went their separate ways, and the Minutemen officially became two organizations. They had overlapping missions, but each chose different strategies: Gilchrist's focus was going to be on border watches, while Simcox's MCDC was to be a national anti-immigration enterprise that would build chapters in all 50 states. In the end, the two groups followed remarkably similar paths into dysfunction.

That spring and summer, Gilchrist was primarily occupied with self-promotion. He went on a cross-country tour to promote his book and met with Constitution Party officials about the possibility of a presidential bid (nothing came of the talk). Meanwhile, Simcox's MCDC organized a follow-up border watch in Arizona in April 2006, and the group began recruiting new Minutemen around the country--everywhere from Illinois to Washington to New Hampshire. The donations began pouring in. Now thoroughly enmeshed in the Keyes organization, all the MCDC donations flowed into a web of nearly a dozen organizations revolving around Declaration Alliance, including Diener Consultants; a Texas outfit called American Caging that acted as the escrow agent and comptroller for the operation; Renew America, a Keyes-run "grass-roots organization"; and a direct-mail company called Response Unlimited.

The association with Keyes' organizations raised hackles within MCDC ranks. Some of the Minutemen began exchanging e-mails denouncing the relationships, since Keyes and his groups were perceived within the ultra-right ranks as being "neoconservative" organizations whose interests were inimical to theirs. Gilchrist, who had washed his hands of the Keyes groups, sent out a bulletin making clear that his Minuteman Project no longer had any associations with Simcox and his outfit. The Washington Times reported on the dissent and quoted Keyes dismissing the MCDC's internal critics as anti-immigrant racists "and other unsavory fringe elements attempting to hijack the border security debate to further their individual agendas."

Simcox was undeterred. In April 2006, he hit on the idea of building a "state of the art" security fence along a section of the Arizona-Mexico border and told The Washington Times that he had more than $200,000 in donations. He described the project as one that would "feature separate, 14-foot-high fences on both sides of the border, separated by a roadway to allow the passage of U.S. Border Patrol vehicles, with surveillance cameras and motion sensors." It was this description that enticed Jim Campbell to pony up his $100,000. But there were problems, notably that there were few private landholders along the border willing to participate. The ranch owner who had agreed to a fence had no interest in an "Israeli style" security barrier; he only wanted a standard barbed-wire fence to keep out Mexican cattle. So that was what was built. The steel Campbell bought was to be used for a short section of "demonstration" fence at another ranch. Of the promised 70 miles of security fence, so far a length of only .7 miles has been erected. Much of Campbell's steel still lies in a pile, collecting Arizona dust.

* * *

Jim Campbell wasn't the only one making things difficult for Simcox. In May 2007, a group of state-level organizers held a meeting to air their grievances over the way Simcox was running the operation: promised funds never delivered, the heavy-handed leadership style, and the general lack of accountability. In particular, they wanted to know what had become of the $1.6 million that Simcox had told the press the organization had brought in, since they were seeing precious little of it spent at the state level.

Simcox abruptly fired them all the next week. The dissenters, led by Simcox's former Arizona chapter head, Stacey O'Connell, regrouped and within a couple of months had formed a rival organization calling itself the Patriots Border Alliance. O'Connell continues to openly criticize the MCDC over its murky finances, appearing on radio talk shows and circulating what information he can glean about the MCDC's money. "I joined an organization that I thought stood for the rule of law and was transparent and was part of the American spirit," O'Connell says. "And to watch what has happened over the past couple of years has really faltered the ideas of the movement."

Certainly there was a significant gap between Simcox's public claims of having raised $1.6 million for the fence, and what his financial disclosure forms show his organization actually spent on it. No one can say for sure because the MCDC won't let anyone touch its books. But a look at the organization's 2006 public filings indicates that, of all the money raised for the border fence, only a small amount (if any at all) went toward its construction. The forms for the Declaration Alliance--through whom all the border-fence donations were directed--show that it brought in nearly $5 million that year for all its programs. What percentage of that $5 million consisted of border-fence donations is unclear, but considering that the fence appeals began in May 2006 and have remained the MCDC's (and Declaration Alliance's) chief fundraising focus in the months since, it is likely that they provided at least a majority of that money. It also shows that $3.19 million went to the MCDC. But for what? The Declaration Alliance largely spent the money on printing, consulting, and similar activities. The only indication on the form that any actual money went back to the MCDC in the field is $143,000 listed as "operational expenses," though this money reportedly was for MCDC border watches, not the fence project. If any of those millions of dollars actually went toward building a border fence, it's difficult to ascertain where they are and how much was disbursed--though a look at the disclosure form for the Minuteman Foundation, the MCDC entity set up specifically to handle the fence project, shows a mere $87,500 in total revenues from donations for 2006. If that's the actual revenue coming from that $3.19 million the Declaration Alliance says it spent on the MCDC--and you estimate that at least half of that is fence-related--then we're talking about less than 6 percent coming back to build the fence.

In other words, the best rough estimate is that about 94 cents of every dollar Jim Campbell spent on the fence went toward printing, mailing, consulting, and the like. It's no wonder members at the field level were seeing so little of the money that Simcox claimed to be rolling in.

Without offering specifics, Simcox denies what the financial-disclosure forms show. "I know there's a lot of controversy over the funding," he says. "But it's just absurd. Every penny that we raised went into the surveying, the engineering, and the construction of what we could build with what we brought in. It's difficult to complete a project when you don't have the funding."

While Simcox faltered under the weight of his members' demands for transparency, his former cohort Gilchrist found his Minuteman Project embroiled in a strikingly similar controversy. The problem began in November 2006, when Gilchrist began bouncing checks. The MMP's board of directors grew concerned and began asking to see bank statements, as well as a copy of the organization's bylaws. Gilchrist promised but never delivered any of the requested documents. The more the board members looked into the way Gilchrist was handling the MMP's finances, the more alarmed they became.

The issue came to a head in a series of board meetings in December, when board members raised the possibility that funds had been embezzled. Gilchrist accused the board of acting like a "lynch mob" and demanded they cease their inquiry. The wrangling continued over the next few weeks until the board voted to terminate Gilchrist as the MMP president and to dismiss two of his lieutenants for fiduciary misdeeds. Three days later, Gilchrist showed up at a board meeting at the MMP offices and announced, "You are all fired! You are all fired!" There was another meeting on Feb. 2, which turned so confrontational that sheriff's deputies were called.

Since then, the matter has devolved into a blizzard of lawsuits, with each side suing the other and variously claiming victory as the rulings and dismissals pile up. At last count, the MMP board had refiled its lawsuit for fraud, and Gilchrist was pursuing individual suits against its members. When he talks about the case now, Gilchrist comes across as rather paranoid. He told me he believes the board members have an ulterior motive: "And that is to jam the Minuteman movement--not just my project but the entire movement across the country."

For their part, the MMP board members insist this is about financial accountability. "If we were mean and vicious and dumb, we would want Gilchrist in jail," says Paul Sielski, board member Deborah Courtney's husband and one of the plaintiffs. "But at the end of the day, we don't want him to go to jail, because how's he going to pay us back?" At this point, Sielski says, all they want is to recover their funds and expose Jim Gilchrist's mismanagement of the Minuteman Project.

* * *

Today the minuteman movement is beyond mere disarray; it is in the early stages of complete decay. The arc of the Minutemen's decline and fall happens to trace almost precisely that of previous right-wing populist movements, notably the Klan of the 1920s and the militias of the 1990s. The pattern goes like this: The group is beset by financial manipulators who seem naturally drawn to them. Then, following an initial wave of popularity, the group splinters under the pressure of competing egos into smaller, more virulent entities who then unleash acts of public ugliness and violence that eventually relegate them to the fringes.

The Minutemen haven't quite reached that final stage yet, but they are well on their way. And while that may be welcome news to those who oppose the Minutemen's nativist agenda, that last stage represents some natural and equally toxic consequences.

The broken promises and vicious infighting have meant, unsurprisingly, that the Minutemen's original mission---watching the border--has receded to the background. In 2007, the MCDC claimed some 2,000 volunteers at various border watches, though the on-scene reports indicated far fewer participants. In 2008, the activity dropped further, so that the annual April border watch attracted only a few dozen participants and no media coverage.

The Minuteman movement has fallen on such hard times that even Gilchrist has publicly admitted that he regrets the "Saddam Hussein mentality" within its ranks, particularly some of its smaller, independent offshoots. "Am I happy at the outcome of this whole movement? I am very, very sad, very disappointed," Gilchrist told The Orange County Register in June. His concern may have been disingenuous, but it was far from groundless. Over the past year, several incidents of violence have been associated with various subfactions of the Minutemen. Last summer, a couple of Minutemen created a video portraying the shooting of border-crossers--which they later admitted was a hoax but decidedly a reflection of their real attitudes. The men were in a group that had spun off from the San Diego Minutemen, itself an independent offshoot of the movement.

Considering that the Minutemen were largely built on the sort of nativist appeals long favored by racist organizations, it's no surprise that racist and white-supremacist elements have been entwined with the movement since its inception. Gilchrist and Simcox both made loud noises about weeding out racist members, though in reality their "background checks" were mostly shams and covert white supremacists were silently tolerated. But even the stigma against overt racism appears to be disappearing among their organizations' successors. One border-watch group, headed by a former Minuteman Project official named Laine Lawless, went so far as to indulge in an e-mail exchange with a neo-Nazi organization offering tips on how to harass Latinos the old-fashioned way: steal from them, beat them up, mistreat their children, make death threats. This behavior has started to infect the main Minutemen organizations themselves. The MMP's official Las Vegas chapter, Americans4America, recently co-hosted an anti-immigration strategy session with officials from the white-supremacist Council of Conservative Citizens.

Jim Campbell was finally reimbursed in September 2007 for his $63,000 outlay for the pipe, but he wants his $100,000 back, too. His lawsuit was dismissed, and now he wants criminal action brought against Simcox and the MCDC operation. Meanwhile, nothing like Simcox's promised "high-tech, double-layered gauntlet of deterrent" has even come close to being built. "We're still hoping to finish that, basically, standing as a monument," Simcox says but adds that it's not necessary anymore and that fundraising for the project has come to a halt. (Even though the MCDC's Web site still asks visitors to "Donate to Build the Minuteman Border Fence.")

Simcox says the Minutemen declared victory when Bush signed the Secure Fence Act in fall 2006, which authorized the construction of over 700 miles of double-reinforced fence along the U.S.?Mexico border. "That was really the purpose ? to challenge them to do that," he says. "I just don't think we're going to get any more funding, to tell you the truth, because people see that the government's doing it. Mission accomplished."

Research assistance for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.

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