Jeremy Schwartz

'God’s will is being thwarted': Hard-liners seek more partisan control of elections — even in solid Republican counties

by Jeremy Schwartz, ProPublica and The Texas Tribune

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

HOOD COUNTY, Texas — Michele Carew would seem an unlikely target of Donald Trump loyalists who have fixated their fury on the notion that the 2020 election was stolen from the former president.

The nonpartisan elections administrator in the staunchly Republican Hood County, just an hour southwest of Fort Worth, oversaw an election in which Trump got some 81% of the vote. It was among the former president's larger margins of victory in Texas, which also went for him.

Yet over the past 10 months, Carew's work has come under persistent attack from hard-line Republicans. They allege disloyalty and liberal bias at the root of her actions, from the time she denied a reporter with the fervently pro-Trump network One America News entrance to a training that was not open to the public to accusations, disputed by the Texas secretary of state's office, that she is violating state law by using electronic machines that randomly number ballots.

Viewing her decisions as a litmus test of her loyalty to the Republican Party, they have demanded that Carew be fired or her position abolished and her duties transferred to an elected county clerk who has used social media to promote baseless allegations of widespread election fraud.

Republican politicians and conspiracy theorists continue to cast doubt on the election process across the country, particularly in areas where President Joe Biden won. They have demanded audits in states like Arizona, where the results of a Republican-led review in Maricopa County confirmed Biden's victory. They have also moved to restrict voting in multiple states, including Texas, which passed sweeping legislation that has already drawn lawsuits alleging the disenfranchisement of vulnerable voters.

Last week, Trump issued a public letter demanding an audit in Texas. Hours later, the Texas secretary of state's office announced that it had begun a “comprehensive forensic audit" in four of the state's largest counties: Dallas, Harris, Tarrant and Collin. Biden won three of the four.

But Hood County stands out nationally and within Texas because it offers a rare view into the virulent distrust and unyielding political pressure facing elections administrators even in communities that Trump safely won. The county also represents the escalation of a wider push to replace independent administrators with more actively partisan election officials, said David Kimball, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

“Going back to the 2020 election, by and large, we saw election officials at the state and local level stand up to and resist efforts by Trump supporters to overturn the results," said Kimball, who is also a ballot design and voting equipment expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Election Lab. “And now this seems to me like part of the next move: Remove officials and put in somebody else who's more to their liking."

Kimball said such efforts can be dangerous given the power of elections administrators to control the number and location of polling places, the use of mail-in ballots and compliance with state and federal laws. In Mesa County, Colorado, for example, elected County Clerk Tina Peters, who has fueled the false narrative that Trump's victory was stolen, allowed an unauthorized individual to copy the hard drives of voting machines, according to a lawsuit against Peters filed by the Colorado secretary of state's office. Sensitive security information, including passwords, later appeared on far-right media sites and on social media, the lawsuit states. Peters' attorney has denied that she did anything wrong.

Carew's case is particularly troublesome because it “smells of political bullying" and reflects a wider rift in Texas among different factions of the GOP that has grown more pronounced since the election, said Carlos Cascos, a Republican who served as secretary of state for two years under Gov. Greg Abbott before leaving in 2017.

“They're in power, they get somewhat cocky and they start eating their own. That's what I'm seeing happening with the Texas GOP," said Cascos, who this year helped form the Texas Republican Initiative, a group that was created to combat intraparty attacks led by former GOP Chairman Allen West, who is now running for governor.

Similar fissures have cropped up in Hood County, where far-right conservatives who preach allegiance to Trump have split with more establishment-aligned Republicans in demanding that Carew's duties be placed under elected County Clerk Katie Lang, who has espoused Trump's stolen-election theory. Lang made national headlines in 2015 after refusing to issue a marriage license to a gay couple following the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

She frequently shares “Stop the Steal" and “Impeach Biden" memes and videos, including those produced by Blue Shark Media, a popular local far-right Facebook and YouTube show that has claimed the presidential election was stolen, vigorously opposed mask mandates and repeatedly called for Carew's ouster. The show's founder is Mike Lang, her husband, who as a former state representative chaired the hard-right House Freedom Caucus.

Aside from saying that she would abide by the Constitution, Katie Lang declined to talk with ProPublica and The Texas Tribune about how she would approach elections management if given the role. Mike Lang did not respond to a request for comment.

The attacks have confounded Carew, 47, whose job is nonpartisan, but who has voted in Republican primaries for the past 11 years, according to public records.

Stress now invades her sleep, waking her up at night as her mind replays the barrage of accusations against her, she said in a recent interview.

“I had no idea what I was getting into."

“God's Will Is Being Thwarted"

The heart of the argument against Carew is as basic as the way she numbers voter ballots.

Hood County represents a growing number of areas that have begun shifting from electronic-only machines to more secure hybrid models, which provide paper ballots and are intended to help guard against fraud. A new state law requires all counties to move to voting systems that produce paper ballots by 2026. Like many elections officials in the state's largest counties, including nearby Tarrant and Dallas, Carew uses the machines to randomly number ballots in accordance with guidance from the Texas secretary of state.

But critics such as Laura Pressley, a self-proclaimed elections expert and favorite of hard-line Republicans in the county, accuse Carew of purposefully ignoring an obscure provision of state law that calls for paper ballots to be consecutively numbered starting with one. Pressley argues that ballots cannot be audited without such numbering, enabling the possibility of election fraud. She has stopped short of claiming any wrongdoing in Carew's handling of the 2020 election.

“Our elections are the representation of free will, and if we can't trust that our free will is being represented legally and accurately, then God's will is being thwarted," Pressley, a failed Austin City Council candidate turned critic of electronic voting machines, told county commissioners in April. Dave Eagle, a county commissioner and critic of Carew's, invited Pressley to speak at the meeting.

The push for consecutive numbering has become so potent in Hood County that commissioners in May asked Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to weigh in on the dispute.

The pending decision could put Paxton, a Trump supporter who unsuccessfully sued to overturn presidential election results in battleground states, at odds with the Republican-led secretary of state's office. The office has defended Carew, arguing in a July letter to Paxton that electronic voting systems must number ballots randomly so as not to violate privacy rights. It also has said that the consecutive numbering provision was intended for paper ballots, not electronic voting machines.

As state and local officials battle over how to number ballots in Hood County, experts worry that Texas' constitutional numbering requirement is outdated and doesn't reflect a broader shift toward protecting voter privacy.

J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert at the University of Michigan, said that over the years states have outlawed the numbering of ballots, adding that “Texas' policy is at the other extreme."

Colorado law explicitly states that paper ballots cannot be marked in any way that allows for voter identification. Numbering of Election Day ballots is not allowed in Illinois or North Carolina, and election laws in states including Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi and New York don't call for the numbering of ballots.

“Where I really worry is for voters who feel socially vulnerable for one reason or another, because they are themselves members of minority groups or are in the political minority," Halderman said. “They are going to be the ones most worried that, 'Oh gosh, the people running the election can figure out how I voted,' and that can deter people from voting at all or being less likely to cast a dissenting vote."

The law dates back to a time when legislators believed that numbering ballots and voter lists would allow for easy identification and help to catch fraud. Over the years, the law was challenged by candidates who worried that it could dissuade voters from participating in elections; by 1947, the League of Women Voters was pushing for a secret ballot in Texas.

“The Texas system originally was devised so that, in case of an election contest, any voter's ballot could be identified and the court could determine whether it had been changed," stated a 1947 McAllen Monitor editorial supporting the shift toward more privacy at the ballot box. “But this precaution is so little needed in contrast to the far more prevalent danger of checking up on timid voters that the cure has done more harm than the original malady."

Since then, historians have pointed to the numbering system as a facilitator of election fraud. Douglas Clouatre wrote in his book “Presidential Upsets: Dark Horses, Underdogs, and Corrupt Bargains" that George Parr, a longtime political boss in South Texas, used numbered ballots, in combination with poll lists, to identify and bribe voters to choose Democratic candidates and reject Republican ballots. Parr's scheme is credited with helping John F. Kennedy win Texas in 1960.

Seven election experts and administrators told ProPublica and the Tribune that consecutively numbering ballots is out of step with best practices in election security and is not required to conduct effective election audits.

“In an audit you're counting the ballots in a particular precinct to see if they match the totals that you've already got, and so the order of the ballots doesn't matter as long as you are counting all of them," said Kimball, the ballot design expert.

“Injecting Chaos"

A 14-year veteran of county elections administration, Carew left a job in Aransas County on the Gulf Coast to be closer to her ailing parents, children and growing grandchildren in north Texas.

Having grown up in Weatherford, just 25 miles away, Carew said she was proud to be running elections in Hood County. She had garnered nothing but praise from Republican leaders in Aransas County who tapped her in 2015 to be their first elections administrator.

“I can't imagine anyone not giving anything but A-plus as a grade. She's that good," Ric Young, the Aransas County Republican Party chair, said in an interview. “People have to realize her credentials are impeccable and she knows what she is doing."

More than four decades ago, Texas lawmakers passed a measure allowing counties to create an independent administrator position. Aimed at insulating elections administrators from political pressures, the law calls for them to be appointed by a bipartisan elections commission rather than by county commissioners. Elected officials are prohibited from directing the activities of administrators.

In proposing the legislation, lawmakers said the move was a step toward professionalizing elections, but they made such a switch voluntary. Of the state's 254 counties, about half — which make up roughly 80% of registered voters — have appointed an independent elections administrator. The others are run by elected local officials, usually county clerks, who are also expected to avoid partisanship.

“There has been a consistent trend in Texas to move toward the fairer, less politicized administration of elections," said Jeremi Suri, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “In the last year, we are starting to see people try to reverse that in ways that are discouraging."

Across the country, elections officials are increasingly feeling pressure to prioritize partisan interests over a fair democratic elections process, according to a June study issued by the nonpartisan Brennan Center for Justice and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The study, which interviewed more than three dozen elections administrators, found that 78% believe misinformation and disinformation spread on social media has made their jobs harder, with more than half saying the position has become more dangerous.

In a September news release announcing a lawsuit challenging Texas' new elections law, the Brennan Center pointed to the negative effects it would have on elections administrators. In direct opposition to measures that made voting easier in Houston, the state's largest city, legislators banned drive-thru polling places and 24-hour voting across the state. They also banned the unsolicited distribution of applications for mail-in ballots to eligible voters, such as the elderly, and created new criminal penalties for election workers accused of interfering with expanded powers given to poll watchers.

“These new penalties are one example of a troubling new trend of state laws that target election officials and poll workers," the statement said. “Laws like these rub salt in the wounds of election workers, many of whom faced unprecedented threats and intimidation last year for simply doing their jobs."

Texas' new voting restrictions, a recent push by GOP activists to seize control of local party precincts and efforts to delegitimize the elections process in places like Hood County could have a greater chilling effect that drives out a generation of independent elections administrators, said David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a nonprofit that seeks to increase voter participation and improve the efficiency of elections administration.

“This is an incredible delegitimization of American democracy when it comes right down to it," said Becker, a former Department of Justice lawyer who helped oversee voting rights enforcement under presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “It is a security threat that is injecting chaos and partisanship and doubt into our election system."

Carew entered Hood County in the summer of 2020, when Trump was already raising the specter of election fraud. Deep-seated divisions among the local Republican Party had already started to form with the selection of the next elections administrator.

A five-person commission that hires and fires elections administrators in the county was split between Carew and another candidate, Zach Maxwell, who had previously served as chief of staff to Mike Lang. According to his resume, Maxwell had never been employed by a county election office, but Katie Lang, who sits on the commission, said she believed he was committed to elections and praised his work ethic.

Republican County Judge Ron Massingill argued that the county needed someone with experience to deal with an expected “turbulent" presidential election. He eventually sided with the Hood County Democratic chair and the Republican county tax assessor in a 3-2 vote to hire Carew in August 2020, making him a target of hard-line party leaders who have framed the decision as a betrayal.

In one of her first presentations to the commissioners court a month before the election, Carew asked them to approve a $29,000 grant from the Center for Tech and Civic Life for items that included election supplies, voter education material and mail-in voting support. She told them that the grant gave elections officials discretion when using the money.

Eagle, an artisanal cheesemaker and former Tea Party leader, questioned the more than $350 million the nonprofit organization had received from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, saying the social media company had stifled conservative voices on its platform.

“This is just one more assault, in my opinion, by the progressive left to completely destroy this election cycle," Eagle said during the meeting. He argued that by giving to nonprofits, private donors were attempting to sway local elections in favor of Democrats, and pointed to a lawsuit seeking to prevent counties from accepting such grants. The suit was later dismissed after a U.S. district judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the grants.

Hood County commissioners voted against the grant, which was accepted by 101 other Texas counties, including 85 that voted for Trump. Texas Republican lawmakers have since passed legislation that would require written consent from the secretary of state's office for private grants exceeding $1,000 to election departments, arguing that they seek to tilt the balance of elections in favor of Democrats.

Days after the November election, Blue Shark Media alleged voter fraud in the national election and said voters should not accept the results. Mike Lang, the former state representative, and his co-hosts praised local elected officials, including Eagle, Katie Lang and Constable John Shirley, a former high-ranking member of the far-right paramilitary Oath Keepers, for attending a “Stop the Steal" rally in front of the county courthouse.

“Those are your GOP Republicans that they're for Trump, they want Trump in there. They're not part of the establishment that are like, 'Oh, no, Trump's not going to win,'" Lang said during a show posted on Nov. 8.

He did not raise concerns about the management of the local election. But since then, the show has repeatedly attacked Carew, even resurfacing her failed request for the nonprofit grant and calling it nothing more than an attempt to draw unsolicited mail-in ballots.

“We need to not only look at who we elect, but we need to look at who our elected officials hire," Lang said during a show that month.

Calls for Carew's Ouster

The demands for Carew's ouster have grown so vigorous that critics have threatened political action against Massingill, the county judge, for his support of the elections administrator.

Massingill, who is quick to point out that he is a recipient of Trump's Order of Merit for loyalty and service to the Republican Party, said the attacks on Carew from his own party are unwarranted.

“I don't think it is fair. I really don't. She is following the law," Massingill said in an interview. “We want somebody in that office that is neutral and unbiased. We can't have the Democratic Party or the Green Party or the Republican Party telling her how to run the election."

Days before an April commissioners court meeting, Blue Shark Media aired an episode calling for Carew's removal. The show had spent months criticizing Carew for a host of perceived slights, including her connection to the League of Women Voters, which honored Hood County and 53 others for their “outstanding" election website. Critics in the county have argued that the voter education and advocacy group is biased because it called for Trump's removal from office after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

In another example that Carew was not ideologically pure, the show's hosts pointed to a report that she had denied Christina Bobb, a former Trump administration official who works for One America News, access to a private training held at a conference of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. Dominion Voting Systems, one of the country's largest election system vendors, filed a defamation lawsuit against the network and Bobb in August, alleging “false and manufactured stories about election fraud." The lawsuit stated that Bobb crossed “journalism ethical lines" by raising money through a nonprofit to fund a partisan review of its voting machines in Arizona's Maricopa County. Bobb and OAN did not respond to requests for comment.

In a two-and-a-half minute report that aired in March, Bobb said that she was able to attend the first day of the conference after identifying herself as a member of the public.

On the second day, Carew, then the president of the state association, barred Bobb, saying she attempted to attend an elections certification training that was not open to the public or to members of the media. Carew said Bobb failed to inform organizers that she was a reporter. She said the Katy-based National Association of Election Officials, which puts on the training that costs several hundred dollars to attend, asked her not to allow Bobb inside.

“She was dishonest with us as to who she was with," Carew said.

But for Mike Lang, the incident was further evidence of Carew's bias.

“The fact is that Michele Carew, the president of the association, kicked her out, and is that election integrity and transparency? Not a bit," he said during a Blue Shark show in April.

Two months later, Blue Shark obtained an application that Carew submitted for a position in Travis County. The application, they said, suggested that Carew was committing fraud because she stated that she was still working for Aransas County.

“How can you have any type of integrity or honesty when you can't fill out an employment application?" Mike Lang asked on a June 21 show as he displayed portions of the application.

Carew, who said she applied for the job after months of attacks in Hood County, told ProPublica and the Tribune that she mistakenly submitted an older version of her standardized employment application. She said she was shocked to learn that critics had gone as far as to track down the application.

“Let's have a commission meeting and let's find another elections administrator," Lang said during the June show in which he demanded that Massingill take action against Carew.

Despite concerns from some Republican precinct chairs about a lack of evidence, the Hood County Republican Party Executive Committee in July passed a resolution threatening a social media campaign against Massingill if he didn't convene the county's elections commission to discuss Carew's termination.

“The resolution makes several big claims, but only uses hearsay to back them up," Mark Shackelford, a precinct chair, wrote in internal Hood County GOP emails obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune. Shackelford later told ProPublica and the Tribune that he believed that without more robust evidence the resolution would be perceived as sour grapes within the county. “And it was," he told ProPublica and the Texas Tribune in an email.

When Massingill refused, Katie Lang, the vice chair of the elections commission, stepped in and called a meeting. Aside from opponents, the meeting drew poll workers, election judges and former officials in Aransas County who defended Carew.

In the end, the elections commission voted 3-2 not to terminate Carew, marking the same split as when it hired her to be the elections administrator. David Fischer, Hood County's GOP chairman who along with Lang voted to fire Carew, said the vote had not ended the effort against her.

The next step, Fischer said during the meeting, should be for the commissioners court to schedule a vote to dissolve the office and place elections under Lang. The move would make the office more accountable to the county's majority Republican voters, said Fischer, who declined an interview request.

Commissioners have not said whether they plan to abolish the position.

In the meantime, Eagle and Pressley have continued their claims that Carew is flouting the law. In August, the pair addressed City Council members in Granbury, the largest city in Hood County, where Eagle advised them against contracting with Carew for its November 2021 election.

Instead, Eagle told officials, the city should hire a private company to run its election.

“I Felt Alone"

Carew has struggled to withstand the personal attacks and the accusations that she violated the law. She worries she has grown less trusting and more cynical.

“I felt alone to tell you the truth," she said in an interview. “The worst part was being dragged through the mud over something they don't know what they're talking about."

Carew said she has tried to find solace in discussions with other elections administrators, the only people who really know what she has been going through.

She feels as if she's somehow let them down. That her experience in Hood County has overshadowed more than a decade of service as an elections manager. And she worries that she will only be known for the claims lodged at her by those trying to remove her from the role.

But Carew is sure of one thing. She has already told her husband that Hood County will be her last elections administrator position.

“I don't feel like I am the same person I was a year ago," Carew said. “This county has ruined me."

The Trump administration keeps awarding border wall contracts — but it doesn’t own the land to build

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

LA GRULLA, Texas — The federal government said it needed Ociel Mendoza's land on the outskirts of this tiny Texas town — and it couldn't wait any longer.

Each additional day of delay was costing the government $15,000 as contractors waited to begin construction on the border fence slated to go through Mendoza's ranch, the Department of Justice argued in court filings. By Nov. 24, the tab for the delay had reached nearly $1.6 million, the land acquisition manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in an affidavit.

More than a year earlier, CBP had awarded a contract then worth $33 million to a New Mexico-based company to build 4 miles of fencing in Starr County. The county is one of the top targets of President Donald Trump's administration for a border wall and a place agents have called the most volatile stretch in the nation. Construction was slated to begin in November 2019, the agency announced.

There was one problem: The government had awarded the contract before obtaining the land it needed, including Mendoza's. This September, after more than a year without getting that land, CBP had to suspend the contract to Southwest Valley Constructors, accruing “substantial" charges along the way, according to court documents.

An investigation by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune has found that the government's strategy of awarding contracts before acquiring titles to the land in Texas has led to millions of dollars in costs for delays, according to calculations based on statements made by CBP officials in court filings. On at least two dozen occasions, the agency has used the argument, often successfully, to convince even dubious federal judges to immediately seize land from property owners fighting their eminent domain cases.

The situation could become even more complicated if President-elect Joe Biden makes good on his promise to stop border wall construction.

Mendoza, an entrepreneur, said the government's latest offer, which he said was about $136,000, fell short of the $200,000 he was seeking. The ranch is especially personal. It's a piece of land he vowed to own after he crossed the border illegally over the property as a teen more than 40 years ago.

“It represents a dream to me," said Mendoza, who became a permanent resident in the 1980s. “The American dream."

Since 2017, the federal government has awarded at least a dozen contracts in South Texas worth more than $2 billion prior to obtaining all the land it needed for the projects. The agreements are to build 146 miles of border wall and install nearly three dozen gates.

But very little construction has been completed. Out of the 110 miles the administration planned to build in the Rio Grande Valley, where most of the land is privately owned, 15 miles had been finished as of mid-December.

The Army Corps of Engineers generally requires land to be acquired prior to awarding contracts, but the policy allows exceptions if approved by high-level officials, said Grace Geiger, an agency spokeswoman.

While posing greater risks for the government, she said the practice doesn't have to lead to greater costs as, depending on the situation, the government may still be able to acquire the land before the contractor needs to enter the site.

Contract experts say the practice violates principles of sound procurement.

“It sounds like a formula for waste, or worse, to make the construction contract first and only acquire the land months or years later," said Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore contracting expert.

Austin Evers, the executive director of American Oversight and a senior counsel for the State Department during President Barack Obama's second term, said the practice should be investigated by federal watchdogs.

“The government is arguing that it has to seize these lands right now because it is being penalized under the contract it already signed," Evers said. “In plain English, what that means is that American taxpayers are seeing their money thrown away for no purpose because the government signed the contract before it could execute the project."

Federal judges hearing CBP's eminent domain cases in South Texas also have expressed frustration with the government's legal argument for immediate possession in Starr County. In recent weeks, a segment of border fencing has quietly gone up in a remote area near Mendoza's ranch.

While the government gets the title to the property as soon as it files what's called a “declaration of taking" and deposits the amount it deems reasonable with the court, it can't begin construction until a judge approves an order to possess the land. U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez, a George W. Bush appointee, blasted government attorneys' request to take immediate possession of Mendoza's ranch, arguing that the agency has had the funds to acquire private land in Starr County for nearly two years.

“The United States' delay until November 2020 to file its motion for possession is not within the Court's control ... and (does) not create an emergency for this court," she wrote Dec. 17. “The Court has repeatedly expressed its dissatisfaction with the United States' requests for expedited relief. The United States is not entitled to expedited relief, and should cease requesting such relief without good cause."

However, Alvarez said that under the Declaration of Taking Act, she had little option but to grant the government's request to take possession of Mendoza's land, noting that Mendoza had not responded in time and that the government had filed the correct documentation and deposited what it estimated it would pay for the land seizure.

Even as government attorneys continue to cite the growing costs of delays to judges, the agency has downplayed the issue outside the courtroom.

“CBP will not know if there are any associated delay costs due to real estate until the end of the contract, as the Contractor may be able to make up any potential delays incurred," CBP spokesman Matthew Dyman told ProPublica and the Tribune on Friday. Dyman declined to clarify the statement, citing the ongoing litigation.

CBP also insists that awarding contracts without first obtaining land is efficient.

“Once the border wall system design is approved by the Government, and sufficient real estate is acquired by the Government, construction activities can begin," wrote Roger Maier, a spokesman for CBP.

The government has been here before. A decade ago, CBP learned that building in this part of the border would be especially challenging, between acquiring the land — which in some cases took more than two years — and flooding concerns. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, several border wall fence projects, also awarded before the government obtained the land, died because the agency couldn't get them built before funding dried up.

The Trump administration's legal efforts have only intensified, with nearly 40 new eminent domain lawsuits filed in the Southern District of Texas since Election Day.

All of which leaves the incoming Biden administration and hundreds of Texas landowners in a web of title and compensation disputes, multimillion-dollar contracts and a string of unfinished — and disconnected — projects all along the Rio Grande.

Biden has said he will cease wall construction and drop all the lawsuits on day one. His transition team didn't respond to a request for comment as to how exactly the administration would go about canceling existing contracts nor what it would do with land it now owns as part of the eminent domain push. Biden could save up to $2.6 billion if he halts construction, according to Army Corps of Engineers documents reviewed by The Washington Post.

This will not be the first time Biden confronts this issue. Last time he was in the White House, the Obama-Biden administration allowed the lawsuits and contracts to proceed. By the end of their first term, 54 new miles of border fence had been built in South Texas.

Starr County

One of CBP's toughest fights over eminent domain centers on Starr County, a poor, mostly rural county where family properties date back to original Spanish land grants issued 250 years ago, well before the Rio Grande served as an international boundary.

For more than a decade, residents and county officials have resisted the agency's push to build a border wall in Starr County, which the government has said in court filings is the No. 1 county for narcotics seizures across the entire southern border of the United States.

Starr and neighboring Hidalgo and Cameron counties are part of the agency's Rio Grande Valley sector, which accounts for 40% of immigrant arrests and 43% of the marijuana seizures along the southwest border.

Under the Trump administration, Starr has become one of the agency's top priorities for the border wall. Hidalgo and Cameron counties already have about 60 miles of border fencing, built upon concrete levee systems.

But Starr County, which lacks a levee system, had no wall before the Trump administration first proposed building there in 2017. Three years later, CBP has awarded contracts for 55 miles, but only about 5 miles have been built, mostly on U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuge land in remote corners of the county.

As it was a decade ago, the government's effort is once again mired in complicated eminent domain legal battles that have so far prevented construction on the remaining miles.

Of 70 condemnation cases filed by the government since September in South Texas, 53 are in Starr County, where the government has only accelerated legal action since Election Day (25 lawsuits have been filed in this county since Nov. 3).

In one case filed at the end of November, the government is seeking to seize a triangle of land smaller than 2 acres in the county. Despite the tract's small size, there are more than 30 individuals with possible ownership rights, scattered across Texas and as far away as Washington state, according to court records.

Lawyers say that as land has passed through the generations, many partitions have not been documented properly in official records, resulting in a thicket of potential land ownership that the government has struggled to unravel.

“The title issues in Starr County seem to be far more complicated and difficult than what we've seen in the other border counties," said Roy Brandys, an Austin-based eminent domain attorney who represents border residents in these cases. “On several of the cases we've been working on in Starr County, one of the reasons they have not progressed even faster is because the government and frankly, we as the landowners' representatives, are trying to work out the title issues before they move forward."

According to a recent Government Accountability Office report, title issues in Starr have slowed construction timelines considerably. “Some counties in South Texas, such as Starr County, do not have the infrastructure or funding to maintain recordkeeping systems," the report says.

But where the federal government sees as a maze of legal hurdles, local officials see a reflection of the region's heritage.

“For many, the land has been in their families for generations," said Joel Villarreal, mayor of the Starr County seat of Rio Grande City. “We have a large number of residents that own land and they are proud of that heritage to own land. They speak of it as something to be cherished, the idea of having land."

Fight Over Land

On a recent morning, Mendoza, 60, stood in front of his ranch as orange survey markers fluttered in the wind around him.

At regular intervals, he has built steps into his own mesh and metal tube fencing, allowing would-be border crossers to climb over. He said Border Patrol agents have asked him why he built them. “I tell them for one, I was undocumented when I came here," he explained. “And two, so they don't break down my fence!"

The ranch holds a special place in the heart of Mendoza, who owns several businesses and properties in Starr County. In 1979, he crossed the border as an undocumented immigrant, passing through the same piece of property on his way to a new life in Houston. Thirty years later he bought the ranch when it came up for sale, and he is loath to lose it.

If the wall comes through the front of his ranch as proposed, Mendoza said he would have to move the fence and an expensive front gate, as well as the corral for the 40 or so cattle he raises on the land. Worse, he said, the wall would render the ranch virtually worthless by placing it almost entirely behind the barrier.

“It won't have any value afterwards" he said. “Anything could happen on the other side of the wall. I won't be protected inside there."

The government first made Mendoza an offer to buy his land in April, according to court documents. Five months later, federal prosecutors sued to take part of his ranch, depositing about $93,000 with the court as a “just compensation."

The government claimed in Mendoza's case that the cost of suspending work was about $15,000 per day. In other cases, the government contended that delays have added as much as $100,000 per day, depending on the size of the contract, according to a review by ProPublica and the Tribune. The expenses came from what officials called de- and re-mobilization and from having equipment and crew on standby beyond the date construction was scheduled to begin.

In four Rio Grande Valley projects alone, where the government has detailed the costs of delays in court filings, the total is nearly $9 million, as of the date the court granted the order for immediate possession, which is when work can begin.

Despite not having been able to break ground in 18 months, the original $33 million contract to Southwest Valley Constructors is now worth $42 million thanks to contract options the government has exercised. An earlier review of federal spending data by ProPublica and the Tribune found modifications to contracts have increased the price of the border wall by billions, costing about five times more per mile than it did under previous administrations.

Francis Rooney, a Republican U.S. representative from Florida and longtime real estate developer, called the practice “ridiculous." From a contractor point of view, he said, there's the risk of inflation and rises in labor or material costs, for instance, as work on those sites is delayed.

“That sounds a little reckless to me, but I'm not surprised given some of what this administration has done," he said, in reference to Trump declaring a national emergency and using military funding to accelerate border wall building.

ProPublica and the Tribune reached out to the companies with contracts in the Rio Grande Valley awarded under the practice. Most didn't respond and Kiewit Infrastructure West, an affiliate of Southwest Valley Constructors, referred questions to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Raini Bruni, another spokeswoman with the Corps, said border wall contracts are written in a way that puts much of the risk on the contractor, who can request compensation in cases where there's a delay or suspension, approved on a case-by-case basis.

But beyond the risk to the government and contractors, the practice can lead to a loss of protections to landowners, experts said.

Due process is at the heart of the government's power to take private property, said Evers of the nonpartisan watchdog American Oversight. But it is being ignored by rushing things through based on emergencies of the administration's own creation, he added, “which runs counter to basic American values."

Beyond the fight over the value of his land, Mendoza doesn't believe the wall will achieve its goal. “The people won't stop," he said. “It wouldn't have stopped me, I would have jumped over."

“They Use the Legal System as a Threat"

About 20 miles upriver from Mendoza, the Muñiz family is also fighting the government's attempt to seize its land in a case that shows the pressure government agents have put on local landowners, especially in the final months of 2020.

On Sept. 1, the government sued Noelia Muñiz and offered to pay $5,500 for about an acre of land. According to court documents, she felt harassed by constant phone calls that she said were taking a toll on her health.

“They call every day, they threaten that if you don't show your face they will take you to court," said her brother Noe Muñiz Jr., 63, outside their home. “They use the legal system as a threat. ... It's very stressful for her."

Usually the government first tries to settle with landowners but sues when they can't reach an agreement or it's unclear who owns the land.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the government has filed 193 lawsuits — three-fourths just in the past year — asking Texas landowners to relinquish, temporarily or permanently, more than 5,800 acres, according to information provided by the Texas Civil Rights Project and court documents.

Noe Muñiz Jr. said the family has been going through the process without an attorney because it can't afford to pay one. “We have no support at all," he said. “If you want support it takes money and no one has money. ... I'm pretty sure they wouldn't do this in a place where the majority of people are white. Here you have Mexican people and they are poor, so come on."

In a normal condemnation case there would be safeguards in place such as environmental reviews, hydrology reports prior to starting the project, said Brandys, who has represented border residents under the current and previous administrations.

But due to what he calls the politicization of border wall construction, the U.S. attorney and those building the wall are under significant pressure from Washington to get as much done as possible. All of which can significantly impact the landowners, he said, adding, “Unfortunately in some of those situations you won't know until the wall is built and the projects are up and we see what the effects are."

The Department of Homeland Security has a record of abusing the eminent domain process to build border barriers.

In 2017, a ProPublica-Tribune investigation found DHS had cut unfair real estate deals, secretly waived legal safeguards for property owners and ultimately abused the government's power to take land from private citizens. In some cases, the DOJ bungled hundreds of condemnation cases, taking property without knowing the identity of the owners and condemning land without researching facts as basic as property lines.

Under the George W. Bush administration, the federal government filed more than 360 eminent domain lawsuits along the U.S.-Mexico border as part of an effort to build up to 700 miles of fencing by December 2008. Along the Rio Grande, the agency built 50 miles in disconnected strips and seized a total of 564 acres for which it paid $18.2 million, ProPublica and the Tribune reported.

There are still 20 cases pending in South Texas from that era, involving about 440 owners, according to the DOJ.

While lawyers and residents say some things have improved, such as the government providing more details about the property it is trying to take, the pressure on landowners has not eased.

Daniel Villarreal, a 56-year-old bail bondsman in Rio Grande City, said government negotiators told him earlier this year he either had to accept their offer or they would take it anyway.

But following Biden's victory, he is starting to feel pangs of regret about selling about an acre of his riverfront property to the government.

He didn't want to say how much he agreed to but said it's not life-changing money. “They say they gave me market value, but how long is that going to last? A year or two?" he said. “And then what you're left with is a monument to a man I don't even like."

The wall would also cut Villarreal off from the beauty of the river's edge, a fear echoed by other property owners.

Growing up, Noe Muñiz said he and his siblings swam daily in the river. As he grew older, the river offered respite after a long day of working in cantaloupe and onion fields. He still fishes there but worries that after a wall is built, the river would become too dangerous to visit inside the no man's land that would be created south of the barrier.

Even though the Muñiz family will likely lose the battle to keep its land, it is trying to get what it considers just compensation, he said, and holding onto hope that Biden will cancel the wall contract in the area. “You can't give up on the land. It's not the government's land," he said. “It's hard to let go."

Trump’s border wall is costing taxpayers billions more than initial contracts: federal spending data review

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On the same day in May 2019, the Army Corps of Engineers awarded a pair of contracts worth $788 million to replace 83 miles of fence along the southwest border.

The projects were slated to be completed in January 2020, the Corps said then. Four months into this year, however, the government increased the value of the contracts by more than $1 billion, without the benefit of competitive bidding designed to keep costs low to taxpayers.

Within a year of the initial award, the value of the two contracts had more than tripled, to over $3 billion, even though the length of the fence the companies were building had only grown by 62%, to 135 miles. The money is coming from military counter-narcotics funding.

Those contract spikes were dramatic, but not isolated. A ProPublica/Texas Tribune review of federal spending data shows more than 200 contract modifications, at times awarded within just weeks or months after the original contracts, have increased the cost of the border wall project by billions of dollars since late 2017. This is particularly true this year, in the run-up to next week's election. The cost of supplemental agreements and change orders alone — at least $2.9 billion — represents about a quarter of all the money awarded and more than what Congress originally appropriated for wall construction in each of the last three years.

President Donald Trump made construction of the border wall a signature issue during his 2016 campaign, claiming that his skills as a builder and businessman would allow his administration to build the wall in a more cost-efficient way than his predecessors. “You know the wall is almost finished," he told a crowd of supporters in Arizona recently, and they weren't paying a “damn cent" for the border wall. It was “compliments of the federal government."

Yet an accounting of border wall contracts awarded during his presidency shows that his administration has failed to protect taxpayer interests or contain costs and stifled competition among would-be builders, experts say. In all, Trump's wall costs about five times more per mile than fencing built under the Bush and Obama administrations.

Experts say the frequent use of so-called supplemental agreements to add work or increase the price has amounted to giving no-bid contracts to a small group of pre-selected construction firms, many with executives who have donated to Trump or other Republicans.

Some contracts and add-ons have been handed out without press releases or announcements, making it harder for the public to track the expanding costs.

Charles Tiefer, a University of Baltimore contracting expert, said the contracting actions involving the border wall project are unusual for the normally restrained Corps, whose contracts aren't typically characterized by massive price increases. Tiefer called the amount of money awarded through modifications “amazingly high."

“These (border wall) modifications do not look like something the Army Corps of Engineers would get by competitive bidding," Tiefer said. “The taxpayer is paying much more than if the whole contract were out for competitive bids."

The Government Accountability Office told ProPublica and the Tribune that it was looking into the contract modifications as part of a broader review of the process the Corps has used to award border wall contracts using military funds. The report is expected to be released early next year.

While adding work to a contract is not unusual on its own, some of the very rapid and significant supplemental agreements in some of the border wall contracts raise red flags and don't always provide enough information to determine if they are problematic, said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of Celero Strategies and former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition and reform during the Clinton administration.

Raini Brunson, a spokesperson for the Corps, said she couldn't comment on specific contracts, instructing reporters to file records requests for more information. But she added that modifications are “made all the time for a variety of reasons." And while the Corps doesn't provide specific updates on a regular basis, she said contract awards and modifications are posted on federal procurement websites and in databases accessible to the public.

But the sites can be difficult to navigate, and the databases often don't reflect recent changes. Neither U.S. Customs and Border Protection nor the Corps publicly maintains a comprehensive list of all border wall contracts and their modifications. Some projects lack enough detail on government websites to even determine basic facts, such as what the additional work is for.

Some of the border wall contract modifications essentially amount to new projects that in some cases then undergo their own modifications.

A review of recent Corps non-border wall contracts shows no recent contract add-ons that approach the scale of border wall awards. Two contracts for walls surrounding a Florida reservoir awarded in early 2019 for about $130 million have had no cost increases, according to federal procurement data.

Of the Corps' five largest active non-border wall contracts in fiscal 2020, three received no additional money through supplemental agreements, and a fourth received three supplemental agreements totaling $584, according to usaspending.gov. A fifth contract, to replace locks along the Tennessee River, did increase substantially, but 98% of the rise was due to pre-agreed contract options, not after-the-fact supplemental agreements or change orders that have been added on to so many border wall contracts.

Building a wall along the southern border has been one of Trump's core promises and perhaps one of his most politically divisive battles.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit brought by advocacy groups over a move to shift billions of dollars from the military for border wall construction after Congress refused to fully fund the project. The federal government's own watchdog agencies are reviewing some of the contracts after lawmakers raised concerns that political favoritism played a role in how the government awarded them.

Among the biggest beneficiaries of the wall contract changes is Galveston-based SLSCO, which has won the second-most in border wall contracts since 2017, about $2.2 billion, including nearly half a billion dollars in supplemental agreements. North Dakota-based Fisher Sand & Gravel has also won more than $2 billion in contracts since building a controversial private border fence in the Rio Grande Valley, which a ProPublica/Tribune investigation found was in danger of toppling if not fixed and properly maintained. On May 6, federal officials gave the firm a $1.2 billion contract, first reported by the Arizona Daily Star; the government did not publicly announce the massive award. The company's CEO, Tommy Fisher, could not be reached for comment. SLSCO officials referred questions about its border wall contracts to CBP.

“Spiraling Costs"

When Trump first touted his plan to build a “beautiful" wall all along the southern border, he said it would cost $8 billion — $12 billion tops — and that Mexico would pay for it.

The nation's self-anointed “best builder" bragged in 2017 that his construction know-how and savvy would bring the price of his border wall “WAY DOWN!" once he got involved in the process.

In the last three years, the administration has awarded nearly 40 contracts to 15 companies worth at least $10 billion to build more than 500 miles of fencing plus roads, lighting and other infrastructure, according to the most recent usaspending.gov data compiled by ProPublica and the Tribune. (Initially, the president proposed building 1,000 miles of wall, but he later revised that figure down to 450 to be completed before the end of his first term.)

In an October update, the administration said it had identified $15 billion — most of it from military funds — to build a total of 738 miles, which comes out to roughly $20 million a mile.

That's compared with the $2.4 billion the government spent from 2007-15 to build 653 miles of fence, as well as gates, roads, lighting and other infrastructure, according to the GAO.

Roger Maier, a CBP spokesman, said it's not reasonable to compare prior expenses to current ones. “CBP is constructing a border wall system which includes a combination of various types of infrastructure such as an internally hardened steel-bollard barrier 18' to 30' high, new and improved all-weather roads, lighting, enforcement cameras and other related technology to create a complete enforcement zone," he wrote in response to questions. “This is very different than the barriers we constructed in 2007-2009 where it was just the 18' steel-bollard barriers in some locations and vehicle barriers in others."

So far, Trump's administration has completed 360 miles, with an additional 221 under construction, according to CBP. Very little of that has added new fencing where there was none, though. Most of the work has been replacing shorter vehicle barriers and dilapidated fences with more imposing 30-foot bollard poles largely on land already owned by the federal government in Arizona and California.

Much less work has been done in Texas, one of the busiest border regions in terms of drug and migrant crossings, but which features the border's largest stretch without barriers. That is due both to the Rio Grande that snakes its way along the 1,200-mile Texas border, dividing the U.S. and Mexico, and the fact that most of the land is privately owned.

Trump declared a national emergency in 2019 after the Democrat-led House refused to give him more than $5 billion to fund the border wall, instead offering $1.4 billion to build fencing in the Rio Grande Valley Sector. The impasse led to a 35-day partial government shutdown before Trump bypassed Congress. By declaring a national emergency, Trump was able to shift billions of dollars from the Department of Defense and the Treasury Department. The rest comes from CBP appropriations.

To those following the border wall construction closely, the contracting process has triggered alarm.

“I'm just extremely concerned about the spiraling costs of the border wall … and about the amount of money that they are having to take away from DOD projects to build this wall," said Scott Amey, general counsel of the Project on Government Oversight, which is tracking the increasing costs of border wall-related contracts.

“Trump is trying to make good on a campaign promise that he made four years ago, and he's rushing through the construction of the wall," he added.

In February, the administration waived 10 federal contracting laws to speed up construction along the southwest border, doing away with rules that promote contract competition and small-business participation, as well as requiring justifications for the exercise of contract options, which prompted experts to issue warnings about the potential outcome.

In awarding additional money through contract modifications, the agency has frequently cited “unusual and compelling urgency" to further erode rules requiring a competitive bidding process. Experts say that “urgency" has little credibility and has led to environmental and other damage along the border.

“Whenever you do that, there are some compliance risks, and ... there's the risk of not getting really adequate, robust competition," Soloway said. “The more and better competition you have, the more and better decisions you can make."

A July report from the DHS Office of Inspector General said costs for the border wall could grow exponentially due to CBP's poor planning ahead of construction in an apparent rush to build the wall.

The agency “has not fully demonstrated that it possesses the capability to potentially spend billions of dollars to execute a large-scale acquisition to secure the southern border," the inspector general reported.

Until it improves its acquisition planning and management, the DHS watchdog said, “any future initiative may take longer than planned, cost more than expected and deliver less capability than envisioned to secure the southern border."

In response, DHS and CBP said they were being “chastised" for following the president's executive order from 2017, which directed the “immediate construction of a physical wall."

The inspector general countered that DHS' lead role in building the border wall doesn't exempt it from “following congressional requirements and established acquisition practices to safeguard taxpayers dollars from fraud, waste, and abuse."

A Track Record of Violations

There's no universal list of all border-wall-associated contracts. ProPublica and the Tribune found 68 contracts since late 2017 using CBP news releases, DOD and Corps announcements, and a search of federal databases for a group of 12 companies given pre-approval status by the Corps. Roughly two dozen of these contracts have only been awarded a minimum guarantee of about $2,000 but no border wall work yet. Not included in this list are millions more awarded to companies for peripheral services including acquiring land, aerial imaging, the removal of munitions debris and cactuses, and environmental monitoring.

Of the awarded contracts identified by ProPublica and the Tribune, four companies earned the vast majority of the funds — about $9 billion. The analysis focused on the total value of the contracts, rather than the amount spent to date. Top officials at the firms have been frequent donors to Republican candidates, and records show some of the companies have a host of safety violations from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for offenses including failing to provide adequate shade to workers and not operating equipment safely, as well as wage violations.

One contract obtained by a Montana company shows how the awards can grow to several times their original size. In May 2019, BFBC LLC, a subsidiary of Barnard Construction, won a$142 million contract just a few days after it learned it was one of 12 construction firms selected by the Corps.

The contract called on the firm to replace about 5 miles of aging, low-slung vehicle barriers with 30-foot-high steel bollards near Yuma, Arizona. The project, one of the first to be paid for with diverted military funds, was widely publicized and featured a quick turnaround, with completion scheduled for Jan. 31, 2020.

What was less publicized was that the contract was open-ended. In technical terms, it was “undefinitized," which is allowed when the government seeks to begin work immediately, but which experts say provides little incentive to keep costs contained.

Four months later, the contract was “definitized," bringing the cost to more than $440 million. A DOD announcement says the money was for “replacement of El Centro and Yuma vehicle and pedestrian barrier," but it gives no additional details.

Six months later, in March 2020, the Corps issued a $172 million change order. This time, no press release or announcement hailed the contract modification; a federal database says the money is for “additional miles" near Yuma, but it provides no details.

Then, in April, a week after Democratic members of Congress urged border wall funds be redirected to the then-exploding coronavirus pandemic, BFBC received its biggest contract modification to date: $569 million for 17 additional miles in San Diego and El Centro — or $33 million per mile. A Corps spokesperson told the Daily Beast it awarded the half-billion-dollar contract add-on without competitive bidding because the firm was already “mobilized and working in close proximity."

Congressional Democrats called on the GAO to investigate what Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, called a “no-bid contract to an apparently politically connected, private contractor" as part of the federal watchdog's broader review of Corps contracts. Campaign finance reports show BFBC's owner is a longtime GOP donor who has given nearly $200,000 since 2017 to Republican causes and candidates, including to those in his home state of Montana as well as Texas and Arizona. Company officials could not be reached for comment.

Southwest Valley Constructors, a New Mexico-based affiliate of Kiewit Corp. that formed several months after Trump's inauguration, has received the most in border wall contracts since 2017. This subsidiary alone has been awarded contracts worth at least $2.7 billion for about 100 miles of border wall work in Arizona and Texas. More than $2 billion of that has come from the single May 15, 2019 contract and subsequent modifications.

While most of the work is ongoing, U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Arizona have already raised concerns that the company's work is dropping groundwater levels at a wildlife refuge, according to emails obtained by the Arizona Daily Star. In South Texas, a judge issued a temporary restraining order against the company after descendants of the family that started the Jackson Ranch Church and Cemetery accused it of working in such “hurried manner" that it was causing excessive shaking and vibrations at the historical sites.

The firm already faces three serious OSHA violations related to excavation safety rules that stem from a single inspection, sparked by a complaint. Southwest Valley Contractors is contesting them. Kiewit and its subsidiaries have a long track record of violations related to worker safety, the environment and employment. Since 2000, it has paid more than $5 million in penalties, records show. Kiewit representatives did not respond to a request for comment.

The $2.2 billion Texas-based SLSCO has won since 2018 has been for at least nine contracts for border wall construction, including about $300 million to build 13 miles of fencing on top of concrete levees in the Rio Grande Valley. That fencing skirts the Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park, La Lomita Chapel and the National Butterfly Center, which Congress exempted from border wall construction in 2018.

The firm's work has come under scrutiny previously: A section of fencing built by the company in Calexico, California, blew over in January during the construction process, which officials blamed on high winds and drying concrete.

The firm has also received more than $410 million in supplemental agreements to a $390 million contract originally awarded in April 2019 to build fencing west of El Paso. Some of that money went to pay for an additional 2.4 miles of fencing; it's not clear what the rest went to.

As the presidential election approaches, both contractors and administration officials are racing against the clock: Former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic candidate, has pledged to cancel the existing contracts if he is elected. If this happens, construction firms would likely be awarded termination fees and get paid based on the amount of work they have completed by the time contracts are canceled.

While there's not an overall estimate of how much that could cost, court documents filed by the administration as part of the legal battle over the use of military funds provide a window into what a Biden administration might face come January: A single contract awarded to BFBC in November 2019 for 33 miles of fence replacement in Arizona, currently valued at about $420 million, could cost the government nearly $15 million to terminate.

“While ending construction is easy to say, it might not be so easy, because he'll have to consider the phase of construction, gaps in the wall that could be exploited and the termination costs for existing contracts, which can come with a high price tag for taxpayers," said Amey, with the Project on Government Oversight. “President Trump might have boxed in Biden, requiring completion of certain portions of the wall whether he likes it or not."

War hero turned troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors

Sept. 29, 2020

"Veteran, war hero, defendant, troll: Man who raised millions for border wall uses social media to attack his detractors" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

This article is co-published with ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power. Sign up for ProPublica's Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox as soon as they are published.

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War hero. Veterans advocate. Family man.

It was an image years in the making. Brian Kolfage had lost three limbs in an Iraq bomb blast in 2004, making him the most badly wounded airman to survive the war. He had become a motivational speaker, was the subject of sympathetic news profiles and was even a guest at former President Barack Obama's State of the Union address in 2012.

More recently, 38-year-old Kolfage had positioned himself as a border security visionary after raising $25 million to construct privately funded fences in an effort to help President Donald Trump keep undocumented immigrants from crossing the southern border.

On social media and in the lucrative industry of online news sites dedicated to far-right politics, there's a very different Kolfage, though. One who, over the last decade, has sharpened a strategy of retribution and retaliation against his online critics, asking his legion of followers to “expose" perceived enemies and “make (them) famous," according to numerous interviews, hundreds of screenshots of since-deleted social media posts and court records from two defamation lawsuits to which he was a party.

Kolfage's actions online have spawned an informal support group of individuals who have felt his wrath, including fellow veterans and progressives, as well as some of Kolfage's former conservative allies. His social media activity has forced him to formally apologize to a perceived online critic as part of a court settlement and prompted a judge to issue a warning following his recent indictment on fraud charges.

Facebook has barred Kolfage from its platform for his online behavior, which includes creating multiple fake accounts and linking to “ad farms," a company spokeswoman said, adding that his actions violated “our rules against spam and inauthentic behavior."

Neither Kolfage nor his attorney responded to requests for comment. He's previously said his social media approach is in response to negative comments that others publish about him, such as allegations of fraud.

Kolfage, along with three others, including former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, are charged with defrauding thousands of donors to Kolfage's nonprofit, We Build the Wall. Prosecutors allege the men deceived donors by using Kolfage's public persona and his pledge not to take a dime in salary. Instead, Kolfage pocketed more than $350,000, according to the indictment. The men have pleaded not guilty.

So far, the nonprofit has helped build two private wall projects, including one in the Rio Grande Valley that a ProPublica/Texas Tribune investigation found could topple into the river if not properly fixed and maintained.

Kolfage has unleashed his growing army of followers on critics and opponents of those projects, including local elected and wildlife refuge officials and a priest. Death threats followed.

The National Butterfly Center, next door to the border fence built in the Rio Grande Valley, “openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children," Kolfage tweeted last year. Facebook and Twitter messages calling staffers “pigs," “pathetic filth" and “traitors" poured in. “You will be made to pay," one Facebook follower declared in a message.

To those who know him, Kolfage's online attacks reflect a pattern.

“His whole identity is wrapped up in people rolling out the red carpet for him, in being this war hero," said Lindsay Lowery, who worked for Kolfage for about a year at his Freedom Daily website in 2017. “If anyone challenges that, he gets very nasty and vindictive. Facebook is his echo chamber." Lowery said she left after she grew frustrated with what she called “clickbait" peddled by the right-wing site.

Mary Anne Franks, a law professor at the University of Miami and an expert on the intersection of civil rights and technology, said: “One of the disturbing trends in online harassment is that when you have enough followers or you are notorious enough, you don't actually have to do the dirty work yourself." She added, “All you have to do is throw out some inflammatory comments about a particular person and your followers are going to do the rest."

Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia

Though Kolfage is technically barred from Facebook, the world's largest social media platform continues to allow him to reach his 683,000 followers with antagonistic posts because it says a fan page bearing his name is operated by seven individuals across the country and, thus, “he is not posting personally," the Facebook spokeswoman said.

A scroll through Kolfage's fan page shows many of the posts are written in the first person, which Facebook said is allowed since he is not a designated hate figure. As of Sept. 23, the name of the principal page owner was similar to that of Kolfage's wife, Ashley — the same person listed as running Bannon's fan page. But the owner of Kolfage's page was changed to Brian Kolfage after ProPublica and the Tribune asked the Kolfages about it.

Facebook said that is also allowed, even for a barred figure, as fan pages have the option of listing their public figure as owner. A spokeswoman reiterated that Kolfage himself is not the actual administrator since “he does not have access to Facebook because he cannot have a Profile." Facebook did not say how it would prevent Kolfage from accessing the site through the account of someone close to him such as his wife.

Regardless of who is posting, since his indictment, Kolfage has found a new target: the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York.

His Facebook fan page has repeatedly blasted prosecutors as “corrupt" and motivated by politics. A recent Facebook post garnered more than 1,500 angry comments supporting him.

“I see public hangings on the White house lawn," one person commented on a recent post about why the indictment was a political hit job, adding, “Obama should be 1st."

When prosecutors complained that the posts on Kolfage's Facebook page could taint a potential jury pool, his attorney, Harvey Steinberg, argued in a hearing that the First Amendment gave his client the right to comment on the case. Though she did not issue a gag order, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres said she may do so if the behavior continues.

And it has. Since the ruling, a steady stream of posts on Kolfage's fan page have labeled prosecutors a “wing of Antifa" acting with “malicious" intentions.

Some of those on the receiving end of Kolfage's previous online behavior say they have forever been changed.

Jackie Millinor, 64, a Massachusetts Air Force veteran and executive assistant, found herself in the middle of a social media showdown with Kolfage and his Facebook followers seven years ago. She came onto Kolfage's radar after trying to end the harassment of a 61-year-old woman she had never met. Kolfage claimed the retired union representative had made a disparaging comment against him and veterans in general.

In response to her advocacy for the woman, Millinor said, Kolfage's followers published her address and phone number on Facebook, which was shared widely. She said Kolfage contacted her employer through since-deleted tweets, asking that she be fired for harassing a wounded warrior. She said the attempt didn't work, but the stress landed her in the hospital with gastrointestinal issues that required a blood transfusion.

Millinor is the founder of the informal Facebook support group of those who say they were targeted by Kolfage.

“It broke a piece of me," Millinor said recently. “I'm not the same person now as before, after what Brian Kolfage did to me. My own family members thought I was crazy."

• • •

Massachusetts resident Jan Vrotsos would get on Facebook to play games, wish friends happy birthday and keep up with their lives, she said.

But a 2013 post offering a family her condolences for losing their little girl to cancer — an illness she said she was then battling herself — placed her in the middle of an internet rabbit hole of fake pages, trolls and cyberbullies she knew nothing about.

It turns out Vrotsos had commented on a fake page Kolfage and others had set up to catch the administrator of a satirical liberal page called Republican Family Values that had used a picture with Kolfage's baby as part of a meme making fun of his family.

Someone, it's unclear who, then posted a fabricated comment to Kolfage from Vrotsos calling disabled veterans worthless. “I hope you die a miserable death you worthless fake hero. You and your family will be a burden on tax payers your entire life," the fake message read, accompanied by Vrotsos' profile picture of her standing in front of a sunflower field with her cocker spaniel, Buddy.

The post went viral. It was shared by Kolfage and his followers, along with Vrotsos' picture, email and home address, as well as the phone numbers of her and her mother.

“This lady is enjoying her freedom at the expense of my legs and hand and enjoys bashing wounded warriors," Kolfage wrote on social media. “EXPOSE HER." It was liked by nearly 1,300 people and shared more than 12,000 times.

Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia Courtesy of Louis Caponecchia

Almost immediately, Vrotsos' then 81-year-old mother started getting calls to tell her daughter to get her affairs in order. Vrotsos received hundreds of threats, including one that said that they hoped she got “mugged and raped at gunpoint by a aids ridden piece of filth."

Vrotsos filed a police report with the Medford Police Department on Dec. 30, 2013, detailing the harassment. But police told her there was little they could do to help. One officer told her that because of the “1st Amendment and free speech" most of her complaints “except real threats and intentional ID theft" were civil in nature and that she should get an attorney.

“The Medford Police Department simply does not have the resources to investigate all the Internet threats and harassments coming to Jan Vrotsos from around the country and from many different sources," the report concluded.

But what bothered her the most, she said in a recent phone interview, is that the harassers found out where her dad was buried, and that they threatened to dig up the World War II veteran and “piss on his grave."

“I was petrified," she said. She didn't leave her house for weeks. It would be years before she stopped looking over her shoulder, afraid people would recognize her.

Before all of this, she said she had no idea who Brian Kolfage was.

• • •

Born in Michigan and raised in Hawaii, Kolfage joined the Air Force and at one point was stationed at Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, where he met his wife, Ashley. In 2004, two weeks into his second deployment to Iraq, a rocket exploded a few feet from him, severing both of his legs and his right hand.

The Purple Heart recipient recovered after undergoing 16 surgeries in six months, enrolled in architecture school and often spoke publicly about his experience, becoming the face of resilience and perseverance.

In addition to being former Democratic Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' special guest to the State of the Union address, Kolfage served on her veteran's advisory council.

“We were just absolutely astounded when we met him," Giffords' then-district director Ron Barber told Cronkite News in January 2012. “His attitude, his positive view of the world despite the fact that he's lost three limbs. It was just extraordinary and inspiring."

A year later, however, Kolfage was sharing conspiracy theories and calling Obama “a halfbreed" on Facebook.

He would soon begin running a number of right-wing websites and Facebook pages that he claimed earned him as much as $200,000 per month, according to text messages reviewed by ProPublica and the Tribune. The sites included sensationalized, photoshopped and in some cases fabricated content, and several were shut down by Facebook for “inauthentic activity" in 2018.

“It got really crazy by the end with photoshopped images all the time," said Lowery, Kolfage's former Freedom Daily employee. “I said I'm not going to profit off of lies."

A text exchange between Lowery and Kolfage viewed by ProPublica and the Tribune shows one example: a fake picture of Hillary Clinton being led away in handcuffs with the headline: “TRUMP'S DOJ JUST DID IT!!! It's FINALLY happening!!!" Questioned about the photo, Kolfage tells Lowery: “it's just a graphic. Best story of the day."

After Lowery quit, Kolfage accused her of trying to lure his employees away to another site, Lowery said. She believes that in retaliation he made false reports to the FBI and her husband's employer that she was a security threat, a claim previously reported by BuzzFeed.

Lowery said that she shared threatening texts from Kolfage, which included the warning to “start hiding your tracks," with the FBI and her husband's employer, and that their inquiries ceased soon after.

Online, Kolfage continued to leave a trail of bullying and personal attacks. While Kolfage has deactivated many of his previous social media accounts, including Twitter, which he closed soon after the indictment, court documents and more recent, undeleted social media activity indicate similar behavior. This week he rebooted his Twitter account to post about the “politically corrupt" case against him.

• • •

That vitriol toward Vrotsos is what caught the attention of others, including vets like Millinor, who went on social media to confront Kolfage in her defense.

It also brought out the worst in people. Some went after Kolfage, leading to mutual online attacks, fake social media pages from both sides, the release of personal information of members of the informal support group and calls from Kolfage to his followers to report them to their employers. Kolfage launched a defamation lawsuit against half a dozen online opponents.

Kolfage and his wife demanded the removal of social media posts calling him names such as Nazi and “pill-addled junky" as part of their defamation lawsuit.

Back then, Kolfage told Fox 10 Phoenix that he felt he needed to take legal action after adversaries started going after his family and tried to ruin the career of his wife, who was a teacher and a model.

“They would say they wished I had died, they said I was a drain on the government system, just really nasty stuff. I started sharing the comments, and it went viral," he said. “Because I was just fed up with it."

The judge ruled in favor of several of the defendants and dismissed the case in 2015. Some defendants reached a settlement with Kolfage that included an agreement to not publish anything about the other and to remove disparaging statements where possible.

As part of the settlement, Kolfage also apologized to Vrotsos for sharing her public information.

“I published Jan's information on my public Facebook page and I regret anything that transpired to Jan as a result of that," Kolfage wrote in a signed statement submitted to the U.S. District Court of Arizona on June 30, 2015.

via U.S. District Court of Arizona via U.S. District Court of Arizona

On Facebook, Kolfage said he didn't believe Vrotsos had authored the post and blamed trolls whose goal was to cause as much misery as possible. “I want to apologize on behalf of my supporters to Jan, who were sucked into this whirlwind and participated in any malevolent behavior," he wrote. “It is my sincere hope that this can be a learning experience for everyone (including the people who are attacking my family wrongfully) and that we can all put this behind us."

After that experience, Vrotsos says she now tries to be more careful online. “I don't want anything to start up again," she said.

Louis Caponecchia, a Navy veteran who was among those who prevailed after being sued by Kolfage, said many people who tangled with Kolfage have gone into hiding online.

“These are regular people, they've never had 10 angry messages on Facebook before and then to get dozens, your average person has no idea how to deal with all that stuff," he said. “It's pretty easy to scare and intimidate people. Me, I have a big mouth and nothing to lose. I fought back and that really enraged him."

Caponecchia has traded online barbs with Kolfage and his supporters and been temporarily barred from Facebook, which he blamed on Kolfage directing his followers to flag his posts. He also operates a blog aimed at uncovering what he says are Kolfage's misdeeds.

Last year, as Kolfage led his nonprofit's private border wall projects, his social media attacks would escalate even more.

• • •

We Build the Wall's first project was a half mile of fencing in Sunland Park, New Mexico, just outside El Paso, where Kolfage grew furious when local officials halted construction because of a lack of building permits.

“Burn up the phone lines and email guys!" reads a post on Kolfage's Facebook fan page, which also included the address and phone number of Sunland Park City Hall and direct contact information for the mayor and city manager. “Ask them who was paid off by the cartels! WE WON'T STOP! YOU DON'T STOP!"

In response, Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said he received several death threats and thousands of messages, some telling him to watch his back or that they were going to release his personal information. “You are one major piece of un American piece of crap," one email read.

He told ProPublica and the Tribune that more than a year later he still had thousands of emails he hadn't gone through.

“Their intention was to bring attention to the issue and fundraising," Perea said, “because shortly thereafter, they were able to fundraise millions of dollars for their project."

The International Boundary and Water Commission, headquartered in El Paso, was also on the receiving end of harassment after agency officials opened a gate We Build the Wall constructed on federal property without permission.

In response, Kolfage encouraged his fan page followers on Facebook and Twitter to call the binational government agency and demand they “#CloseTheGate." He also accused its commissioner, Jayne Harkins, a Trump appointee, of letting unauthorized immigrants into the country and undermining the president.

The commission received hundreds of calls from his supporters.

“The typical message would be somebody would call and say 'open the gate' and hang up," said Sally Spener, a spokeswoman for the commission. “It made it difficult for us to receive other business-related calls and our job."

More than a year after construction of the half-mile stretch of fence, Spener said, We Build the Wall hasn't fulfilled all of the requirements set out by the agency, including an operation and maintenance plan and evidence of financial responsibility for damage or injuries that can be caused by the gate.

In response to questions about his allegations and social media claims, Kolfage told ProPublica and the Tribune in July that the border is loaded with corruption. “It was border patrol agents who alerted us that the very first people to come out strong against our wall were the ones paid off," he wrote in an email.

In the Rio Grande Valley, Kolfage accused the National Butterfly Center of enabling sex trafficking and sent what executive director Marianna Treviño-Wright considered a threatening tweet claiming that there were “snipers in your bushes doing security for our team."

Treviño-Wright, who has filed a defamation lawsuit against Kolfage, said she was unprepared for being publicly labeled a human trafficker. “Once there was blood in the water, his buddies and bots and We Build the Wall donors were sharks."

But she said Caponecchia, a onetime target of Kolfage's, reached out during the social media assault, offering advice and guidance. “I could ask Louis questions and bounce things off of him, what we might anticipate."

A longtime opponent of the border wall, Treviño-Wright said she was forced to take security precautions at her home and office and reported what she considered suspicious activity near the butterfly center to local and federal authorities.

“There is no way to insulate yourself and family from the online attacks or from those people showing up like … militia people," she said. “I think the prosecutors and judges (involved in the Kolfage criminal case) need to understand they now have targets on their backs."

The criminal indictment has brought relief to some of Kolfage's past targets, who say they are looking forward to his trial in May 2021.

“All the fear I've been holding all these years just went away," said Millinor, the Air Force veteran. “I said: 'You know what, I'm not going to hide anymore. Come hell or high water I will be in that courtroom.'"

Disclosure: Facebook has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2020/09/29/brian-kolfage-we-build-wall/.

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