The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A nonprofit says it collected over $1.5 million for a D.C.-region-bound truck convoy. Its director recently pleaded guilty to fraud.

Hundreds of supporters gathered to cheer on the "People’s Convoy" from an overpass in Eureka, Mo., on March 1 as the caravan made its way from California to the D.C. area. (Eric Berger for The Washington Post)
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At a rally point near the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Tex., as the wind whipped American flags atop an 18-wheeler behind her, a Southern California lawyer and anti-vaccine activist named Leigh Dundas exhorted a crowd to make donations.

“We’re going to be doing a little altar call up here. A hundred percent of that cash is going back into the boys’ pockets for the next fuel stop,” Dundas told onlookers and live-stream viewers, encouraging them to give online to the “People’s Convoy,” a U.S.-based group of activists opposed to vaccine mandates and inspired by the self-styled “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Canada’s capital for weeks.

The group set a goal of $5 million to fuel its fight and claimed to have collected $1.5 million by Monday, eliciting growing support across the country from people who’ve cheered at rallies, demonstrated from chilly highway overpasses, and taken to social media to profess a loss of faith in government, politicians, media and other institutions they paint as corrupt and out of touch.

They want to do something, so they give. In this case, to the AFCLF Foundation, which launched last year and names as its executive director a Texas woman named Pamela Milacek, whose arrest is sought, records show, by authorities who allege she violated the terms of her community supervision after pleading guilty to felony fraud and exploitation charges in 2020.

Leaders pledge that the dollars collected by the organization, whose initials stand for the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedom, will go to the truckers and organizing for the convoy. It’s part of a coalition of emerging social media influencers and groups harnessing the grievance of disgruntled voters, many of whom profess a belief in the claim, comprehensively dismantled in courtrooms across the country, that the 2020 election was stolen from President Donald Trump.

They don’t trust the government, but they are placing their trust in the nonprofit group, which lists among its top issues “election integrity” on a website decrying “ideological discrimination, “big tech censorship,” “cancel culture” and “forced COVID vaccinations.”

On Feb. 23, a group of American truckers began a cross-country drive from California to Washington to protest coronavirus restrictions. (Video: Reuters)

The address listed by the foundation is a co-working space in Boston. A lawyer who lives in California, Christopher Marston, is listed in the foundation’s incorporation paperwork as its president, secretary and treasurer.

Dundas, Marston and other boosters tout the growing numbers of supporters for the convoy, which left California on Feb. 23 and has amassed about 300,000 followers on Facebook. The organizers have not detailed their plans beyond saying they won’t enter the city after arriving in the D.C. area this weekend.

Dundas, who was seen on video near the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 attack but said in an interview this week that she was a mile away “the entire afternoon,” has fought pandemic restrictions in Orange County, Calif., including announcing the then-chief health officer’s residential address during a May 2020 public meeting, prompting protests outside her home.

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Marston and Dundas decided to team up after both were inspired by truckers protesting in Canada last month, they say. Those protesters, angry over a rule barring unvaccinated truckers from crossing the border and other public health measures, jammed streets in Ottawa, snarling traffic and forcing some businesses to close. Supporters of the demonstrations in Canada donated nearly $9 million, according to a Washington Post analysis of leaked data.

While the AFCLF kept soliciting donations for the U.S. truckers Thursday, Marston — after fielding questions from The Post about its role — alluded to possible changes. “There are dynamics going on that may change how this all plays out,” he said, without elaborating. “Whatever the plan is would change massively as of tomorrow, including whether or not we are involved.”

Marston and Dundas reached for connections last month to begin boosting the truckers’ plans, taking to conservative media. The AFCLF secured the help of Tampa-based Web designer Phil Reale — listed on the AFCLF’s website as a board trustee — to build a donations page.

“You may be hearing about this soon on the news, perhaps Hannity already as I type this,” Reale wrote of the efforts in a Feb. 13 Facebook post. Reale, who declined to comment, wrote that the site collected $5,000 from about 200 donors in the first 24 hours.

Soon thereafter, Marston and Dundas touted their efforts on Lindell TV, a platform created by Mike Lindell, CEO of MyPillow.

“We’re the nonprofit that’s sponsoring the campaign and putting together infrastructure staff, and it takes a lot of staff to pull off something like this and the volunteers,” Marston said.

After a spirited discussion about masking, Marxism, “globalist leaders,” Chinese bioweapons programs and government incursions on freedom — “Our dogs have a better right to breathe oxygen than we do” — Dundas made a plea for donations.

“I encourage everybody sitting on a sofa right now listening to this: Get in the game,” she said. "Go to Figure out how you can throw two bucks, five bucks, whatever you got, twenty thousand bucks at it.”

Supporters who clicked on the website’s “Donate Now” button were sent to the AFCLF’s website, where they could donate by credit card or cryptocurrency, or by sending a check. They could also buy a day riding with a trucker for $5,000.

“For the most part, it’s the American people backing the movement,” Marston said Monday, when asked where the money is coming from. “I mean, I’ll tell you, 80 to 90 percent of it has to be smaller denominations that are a thousand or less. It’s really awesome to see that.”

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The AFCLF’s website and incorporation paperwork give its address as the 8th floor of 10 Post Office Square in Boston, which is a co-working space and address that businesses can use to put on “business cards, licensing, website, etc.,” for a promotional rate of $80 per month, according to advertising for the space. It’s the same address Marston gives as headquarters for his firm Exemplar Law, which he started in 2005 just after graduating from law school.

A website for the firm and a constellation of business entities Marston calls Exemplar Companies describes a “national footprint” with nine satellite locations. The same phone number is listed for all of them, and it goes to an answering service.

Marston said Thursday that an Exemplar employee, Steven R. Monticone, has an office inside the co-working space, “and we allow the foundation to use that space.” Monticone, who is the registered agent for the AFCLF Foundation, did not return messages. An online tour of the co-working space shows an office with Monticone’s name by the door.

Marston declined this week to provide The Post a copy of the AFCLF’s application to become a nonprofit organization. The IRS granted the AFCLF status as a 501(c)(3) private foundation in August, records show. Marston said the foundation’s leadership has broadened since he created it. “Obviously I started the thing, but then we implemented a board and everything else,” he said.

Two of the eight members of the board of trustees listed on the AFCLF’s website are also listed as business executives on Exemplar’s website. One of them, Michal “Mehow” Pospieszalski, did not immediately recognize the AFCLF when phoned by a reporter.

“AFCLF, what is that?” Pospieszalski asked.

Asked whether he knew he was listed as a trustee, he said, “No, I am?”

Later, after receiving a link to the listing, he said he actually was on the AFCLF’s board. Asked whether he had been to any board meetings, he said, “I haven’t been aware of any because I’ve been super busy with my work.”

Marston said the foundation brought on four full-time employees last month as it prepared to support the convoy, including Milacek, who already had been acting executive director for about six months but “didn’t need to be” full time until the nonprofit group undertook collecting convoy donations.

In 2020, Milacek pleaded guilty to felony exploitation of an elderly person after taking nearly $15,000 from the bank account of her then-81-year-old aunt, Collin County, Tex., court records show.

Milacek, 57, also pleaded guilty to a separate felony charge of fraudulently using someone’s name, Social Security number and driver’s license number to apply for a PayPal credit card in 2017, court records show. The case involved a different victim.

Milacek received community supervision and deferred adjudication in the cases, court records show. In October, after authorities said she failed to report to her supervision officer, pay court costs and complete an anti-theft program, a judge ordered a warrant for Milacek’s arrest. The Collin County Sheriff’s Office said this week they have no record of her having been arrested.

Milacek declined to comment about the AFCLF, referring questions to Marston, and she did not return subsequent messages about her guilty pleas. Asked about Milacek’s criminal record, Marston said via text message Wednesday, “You must have a completely different person but Pam has no record buddy.”

On Thursday, after receiving more information, he said it was “personal, family-related stuff” and expressed a belief in her innocence. “I was able to understand the details and the truth and the full story in a way that satisfied us from a foundation standpoint,” he said.

Dundas said she does not know Milacek and has not met her but has seen her name “maybe once or twice in passing.”

Linda Hatmaker, who gave $50 to the cause a couple of weeks ago, said the process seemed secure and she received an email confirming the donation was tax deductible. When told about Milacek’s charges, she said she wasn’t concerned.

“You’re talking about one person,” said Hatmaker, 56, of Elyria, Ohio. “You can’t dismiss what the whole thing is about because of one person.”

She said she hoped to catch the convoy before it left Ohio on Friday. She hadn’t figured out the logistics by Thursday evening, but she did know one thing for certain — she’d be waving an American flag.

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A crowd of hundreds cheered the convoy from an overpass in Eureka, Mo., on Tuesday as it took about 30 minutes to pass underneath. Police had blocked the overpass to traffic to accommodate those who lamented loss of liberty and grieved over the direction of the country — a feeling many traced to the results of the 2020 election.

Eureka Fire Protection District employees brought a firetruck and used the ladder to raise an American flag. A boombox played a clip of a profane chant from fans at a NASCAR event, while a supporter held a flag with the same message. People periodically sang the national anthem.

Joyce Soroka, who spent more than a year estranged from some family members because she refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, named others who had been required to take the shot, in protest: “This is for the Mollys, the Jakes, the Justins,” she said, standing with her mother and other convoy supporters wearing and waving American flags.

Brian Brase, a 37-year-old truck driver from northwest Ohio who helped organize the convoy, said the group wants an end to the national emergency declaration in response to the coronavirus — first issued by Trump in March 2020 and later extended by President Biden — and for Congress to hold hearings investigating the government’s response to the pandemic.

On Thursday, as the convoy left Indiana and headed toward Ohio, Indiana State Police spokesman Capt. Ron Galaviz estimated there were about 550 vehicles, mostly cars or pickup trucks but also about 160 semi-tractors or tractor-trailers. Organizers, including Marston, have put the convoy’s number at more than 1,000.

People from other states, including the Northeast region, have posted their own routes on social media in the hope of meeting up with the People’s Convoy when it arrives in the D.C. region. However, supporters have been joining and leaving throughout the cross-country trip, making it difficult for officials to predict the size of the group before it reaches a destination.

Brase estimated fuel costs had been about $10,000 per day. Marston, who said the number of vehicles in the convoy is “doubling every day,” estimated fuel costs much higher. “You can figure fuel cost at around $50,000 a day, maybe more,” he said. “Probably by the middle to the end of it, it could be $100,000 a day. So, just the fuel, I mean forget about food and lodging issues. And there’s just a lot of logistics and coordination and permits sometimes. So it’s expensive to run this sort of thing.”

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Maureen Steele, a convoy organizer who appeared alongside Dundas and Marston on Lindell TV, told The Post that a “very small percentage" of the donations goes to pay AFCLF employees, but the rest is for the convoy’s expenses, mostly fuel.

Marston said if there’s money left over, the truckers will decide what to do with it.

“The truckers are on the finance committee and there’s a lawyer, accountant. I mean, there’s a lot of oversight and making sure money goes to the right needs on the ground for the truckers,” he said. “The truckers have agreed if there was any extra that they’re going to be involved in selecting nonprofits that are civil-liberties-related and appropriate — and they may give to charity and back to communities.”

Robin Evancoe, 61, of South Lyon, Mich., said she donated to the People’s Convoy two weeks ago. She supported the Canadian trucker protest and began following the People’s Convoy on Facebook, which led her to the AFCLF’s website.

Told about its director’s legal troubles, Evancoe said she just hopes her money will go to the truckers.

“I guess my philosophy is that with these organizations I’m taking a risk when I give my donation,” she said, “and I just hope there are honorable people involved.”