His Private Border Wall Enraged Neighbors. Then He Got $2B To Build Walls For Trump

Oct 14, 2020
Originally published on October 15, 2020 10:56 am

When Tommy Fisher decided he wanted to build his own private border wall in Texas, he said he wanted to keep out trouble from Mexico.

Now that wall has created its own set of troubles on the U.S. side of the border: Engineers warn the structure will wash away in a flood, neighbors want it dismantled, and Fisher is embroiled in lawsuits.

Nonetheless, Fisher and his North Dakota construction company have landed more than $2 billion in contracts to build President Trump's official wall.

Fisher, who supports Trump and regularly promoted himself on Fox News, erected the iron barrier 18 feet high and 3 miles long along the highly regulated Rio Grande as his personal project.

Opponents say it has since fallen into disrepair and could exacerbate flooding because it's too close to the international river. Locals are dumbfounded by the project.

"I didn't know you could disrespect the river bank like that," says the Rev. Roy Snipes, an Oblate priest who celebrates Mass at an historic mission church not far from the private wall.

"I thought if you tried to do something like that, the Texas Rangers or Texas Parks & Wildlife would come in and say, 'Hell, you can't do that. You don't own the river.' But evidently ... you can do whatever the hell you damn well please."

Fisher has said all along that he built the wall to show the government he could do it faster, cheaper and better. He did not respond to an interview request from NPR but told reporters in August: "We're built structurally strong so that we can handle pretty much whatever God throws at us."

Despite lawsuits filed by the International Boundary and Water Commission and an enraged neighbor, a federal judge allowed Fisher to finish his border wall last March. It sits like a white elephant on the sandy banks of the river, baking in the Rio Grande Valley sun.

For critics, the greatest puzzlement about the private wall is its pointlessness. Trump's massive and expensive border barrier that's under construction just a mile to the north negates the need for Fisher's wall.

Moreover, Fisher's wall sits right next to the winding river, not on top of the levee that is outside of the flood plain, where the Trump administration is building its own controversial barrier.

"This thing that the Fisher group did, it's way too close to the water. And it's in an area where we would never be allowed to build at the federal government level," says Ron Vitiello, retired chief of the Border Patrol who oversaw some of the federal wall construction.

And now, there's the whiff of scandal. In August, federal prosecutors charged former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and three others with defrauding donors out of millions of dollars.

The indictment alleges that a group calling itself We Build The Wall "defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors" in a crowdfunding campaign that was supposed to go toward border walls like Fisher's. Instead, according to the indictment, the money went to fund lavish lifestyles.

The defendants say that they're innocent of wrongdoing and that the charges are politically motivated. Fisher is not charged.

We Build The Wall only contributed $1.5 million to Fisher's border wall in the Rio Grande Valley; Fisher paid most of the $40 million cost himself.

Yet, We Build The Wall continues to take credit for Fisher's two border projects on its website. In addition to the Rio Grande Valley project, Fisher has built a shorter section of wall on the land border between Mexico and Sunland Park, N.M., just west of El Paso, Texas.

The big question now is what happens the next time the Rio Grande has a big flood, which happens periodically with Gulf hurricanes. Marianna Treviño Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, is the neighbor suing Fisher.

"The experts and the scientists ... attest to the fact that in a flood event, that fence will block and clog. It will cause a redirection of water flow and ultimately result in damage to property adjacent and upstream," says Wright.

She has also filed a defamation suit against We Build The Wall's founder, Brian Kolfage, a U.S. Air Force veteran who became a triple amputee from injuries sustained while serving in Iraq. When Wright and Roy publicly opposed construction of the private wall, Kolfage tweeted they were both "promoting trafficking of children."

"They were outright lies," Wright says. "We are not a cartel front."

Wright, the International Boundary and Water Commission, and its Mexican counterpart, which goes by the initials CILA, are alarmed that the bollard wall is a potential obstruction that could deflect floodwaters, or even get pushed over by the force of the water.

Over the summer, heavy rains revealed just how precarious the wall is. Water erosion scoured deep trenches under the foundation. The U.S. attorney representing the IBWC described it as "severe."

Wright's lawyer, Javier Peña, went along with an inspection team after the rains passed.

"People can actually fit and just crawl under the foundation of the wall, and it's months old," Peña said incredulously. "This thing was supposed to last a hundred years, and it can't even last a year."

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon and three others connected to the group We Build The Wall have been indicted for allegedly defrauding donors.
Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

Meanwhile, Fisher has received four border wall construction contracts from the Homeland Security Department valued at $2.25 billion — more than any other federal contractor.

Democrats in Congress suspect favoritism, and now the Pentagon's inspector general is auditing a $400 million contract to his company, Fisher Sand & Gravel.

These days, Fisher is busy in Arizona with his mega-contracts building the official border wall — to the government's specifications, not his own. But he did return to Texas in early August to answer complaints of erosion under his prototype wall.

"No matter what we do, if there's a huge storm, there's erosion," Fisher told reporters. "And we have the ability to fix that here, and then we have the ability to make it stronger."

He says the fixes are simple: Fill in the eroded gullies with more dirt, pile gravel on and seed the area with grass. That, he claims, will stand up to Mother Nature.

But experts remain deeply dubious.

A forensic report prepared by engineers hired by the Butterfly Center warns the private wall is in danger of toppling over because of a poor foundation and continuing erosion.

Jude Benavides, an associate professor of hydrology and environmental science at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, has studied flooding on the international river. He says while it appears placid to outsiders, it can become fierce, as in, el Rio Bravo — Mexico's name for the river.

"And so to build, not only in the flood plain, but essentially in the floodway, it's going to have repercussions when [the river] decides to wake up and rage again," Benavides said.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A border wall built in Texas by a private citizen, a citizen who supports Trump and says he wants to keep out trouble from Mexico, has created its own set of troubles. Engineers warn the structure will wash away in a flood. Neighbors want it dismantled. The builder is embroiled in lawsuits. And now, as NPR's John Burnett reports, that citizen has landed more than $2 billion in contracts to build Trump's official wall.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: It sits like a white elephant on the sandy banks of the Rio Grande, baking in the South Texas sun. That a North Dakota contractor and Trump favorite named Tommy Fisher could erect an iron barrier 18-feet high and three-miles long on the river as his personal project has dumbfounded locals.

ROY SNIPES: I didn't know you could disrespect the river bank like that.

BURNETT: Father Roy Snipes is an oblate priest who celebrates mass at a historic mission church not far from the private wall.

SNIPES: I thought if you tried to do something like that, the Texas Rangers or the Texas Parks and Wildlife would come in here and say, hell, you can't do that. You don't own the river. But evidently - well, and I think the judge pretty much told them, you do own the river. You're rich and powerful. You can do whatever the hell you damn well please. And they did. They sure did (laughter).

BURNETT: A federal judge did allow Fisher to finish his border wall, despite grave reservations from the International Boundary and Water Commission. The problem is the private wall is right next to the winding river, not on top of the levee outside of the flood plain where the Trump administration is building its own controversial barrier. Ron Vitello is a retired chief of the Border Patrol who oversaw some of that construction.

RON VITELLO: This thing that the Fisher group did - I mean, it's way too close to the water. And it's in an area we would never be allowed to build at the federal government level.

BURNETT: And now there's the whiff of scandal. In August, federal prosecutors charged former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and three others with defrauding donors out of millions of dollars. The money was supposed to go toward constructing private border walls like Fisher's. Instead, the indictment alleges, it funded lavish lifestyles. The defendants say they're innocent, and Fisher is not charged. Very little of the donated money actually went to his wall. He paid for most of the $40 million cost himself.

The big question now is, what happens the next time the Rio Grande has a big flood? Marianna Trevino-Wright, who runs the nearby National Butterfly Center, is also suing Fisher.

MARIANNA TREVINO-WRIGHT: The experts and the scientists, even the IBWC, attest to the fact that in a flood event, that fence will block and clog. It will cause a redirection of water flow and ultimately result in damage to property adjacent and upstream.

BURNETT: Wright, as well as the IBWC and its Mexican counterpart, are alarmed that the bollard wall is a potential obstruction that could deflect floodwaters or even get pushed over by the force of the water. Over the summer, heavy rains revealed just how precarious the wall is. Water erosion scoured deep trenches underneath the foundation. Wright's lawyer, Javier Pena, describes what they found during an inspection of the wall after the rains passed.

JAVIER PENA: People could actually fit and just crawl under the foundation of the wall, and it's months old. And this thing was supposed to last a hundred years, and it can't even last a year.

BURNETT: Fisher says he built the wall as a demonstration project to show the government he could do it faster, cheaper and better than federal contractors. It worked. Fisher, who promoted himself on Fox News, has so far received four wall construction contracts from the Homeland Security Department valued at $2.25 billion. Democrats in Congress suspect favoritism, and now the Pentagon inspector general is auditing a $400 million contract to his company, Fisher Sand & Gravel.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONSTRUCTION AMBIENCE)

BURNETT: These days, Fisher is busy in Arizona with his mega-contracts building the official border wall, but he did return to Texas to answer complaints about his prototype wall.

TOMMY FISHER: No matter what we do, if there's a huge storm, there's erosion. And we have the ability to fix that here, and then we have the ability to make it stronger, or it happens a lot less.

BURNETT: Fisher says the fixes are simple - fill in the eroded gullies with more dirt, pile gravel on and seed the area with grass. That, he claims, will stand up to Mother Nature.

FISHER: We're built structurally strong that we can handle whatever, you know - pretty much whatever God throws at us.

BURNETT: Experts remain deeply dubious. A forensic report prepared by engineers hired by the Butterfly Center warns the private wall is in danger of toppling over due to a poor foundation and continuing erosion. Jude Benavides, a professor of hydrology at the University of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley, has studied Rio Grande flooding. He says it looks deceptively placid, but it can become fierce, as in El Rio Bravo, the Mexican name for the river.

JUDE BENAVIDES: And so to build right not only in the floodplain but essentially in the floodway, it's going to have repercussions when it decides to wake up and rage again.

BURNETT: But for critics, the greatest puzzlement about the private wall is its pointlessness. Trump's massive border barrier that's under construction just a mile north utterly negates the need for Tommy Fisher's riverside wall.

John Burnett, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.