Correction to This Article
A March 13 article about the Minuteman Project incorrectly said that HSP Direct, a direct-mail company in Herndon, was "defunct." Company officials say it remains in business.

Minuteman Project In Turmoil Over Financial Allegations

By Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 13, 2007

LOS ANGELES -- The Minuteman Project, an anti-illegal-immigrant organization that has monitored the southern border, is embroiled in a nasty legal fight over accusations of financial improprieties that has splintered the group and probably will sideline it during the busiest time of the year for border crossing.

Former leaders of the Minuteman Project accuse founder Jim Gilchrist, 58, of using $300,000 of the group's money to support his pet causes, including promoting a book he co-wrote and funding an unsuccessful run for Congress in a 2005 special election. Last month, saying they are the group's board of directors, they took over the Minuteman Project Web site and bank accounts, and fired Gilchrist as president.

Gilchrist fired back with a lawsuit accusing his former associates of defamation. He maintains that they have no standing to fire him from the California-based organization. He also accuses them of hacking into the Minuteman Project's Web site, stealing a donor database and pilfering his personal stationery, all of which the organization relies on to raise money.

"This crisis has put us in a tailspin," Gilchrist said in an interview. The organization had planned to mobilize members in coming weeks when Congress again takes up immigration legislation, he said, but it has canceled its plans because he is busy dealing with legal issues.

The dispute centers on $750,000 in donations raised for the Minuteman Project by HSP Direct, a now-defunct Herndon direct-mail firm hired by Gilchrist. After the company deducted expenses, the project received about $100,000.

Deborah Courtney, a Minuteman Project employee until last month, said the group should have received about $300,000 more. She charges that Gilchrist spent the money on his own fundraising activities or secreted it in bank accounts that the group members could not access.

"This is an incredible injustice to the American patriots who donated money," Courtney said. "Some of those patriots are mesmerized by Jim's star quality."

Courtney also said Gilchrist improperly got the group a nonprofit postal rate on mailings when the organization should have paid full price. Courtney, Marvin Stewart -- who has taken over as head of the Minuteman Project -- and Barbara Coe, a former adviser to the group who heads the anti-illegal-immigrant California Coalition for Immigration Reform, reported the Minuteman Project to the Postal Service and to the Internal Revenue Service, Courtney said.

Gilchrist, a retired accountant, said his former colleagues do not understand basic business practices. He said the fundraising money was spent appropriately on Minuteman Project expenses.

"I am not about to risk my retirement and my home and the reputation of the Minuteman Project to engage in some criminal enterprise," he said. Gilchrist calls his accusers "rogue people who had a false perception of millions if they could take over the organization."

An Orange County Superior Court judge will hold a hearing on Gilchrist's lawsuit on March 21.

This is not the first time the group has fractured. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps has operated separately from the Minuteman Project since December 2005, after a bitter internal dispute over funding.

Both groups organize volunteers to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border and report suspected illegal immigrants to authorities. Both lobby legislators to close the border and enforce existing laws.

In South Texas, Michael Vickers, the head of a former Minuteman group, said his organization split from the national groups because Minuteman leaders did not adapt to the needs of volunteers who patrol on private land in Texas. Financial concerns also played a role, he said.

"People here in Texas were making big donations to the Minutemen, helping them raise funds, but they weren't getting answers as to how that money was being spent," Vickers said.

His group is now called Texas Border Volunteers, and it is gearing up for spring, typically the busiest time for illegal border-crossers traveling to agricultural jobs in the United States.

"Most of our volunteers are former Minutemen," Vickers said. "We're getting two to five new volunteers every day."

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