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He builds the wall: How a North Dakota man used a Stephen Bannon stunt to score $2 billion in Trump border contracts

Fisher Industries workers drop a piece of wall into place on May 24, 2019, in Sunland Park, N.M., on private land near where New Mexico, Texas and Mexico come together. (Photos for The Washington Post by Jordyn Rozensky and Justin Hamel)

Tommy Fisher had been trying to land a border wall contract for two years, without success, when the group We Build the Wall called him in April 2019 about a project in New Mexico.

We Build the Wall had raised more than $20 million telling donors it would put up barriers on private land along the U.S. southern border. The group’s board members were well-connected right-wing celebrities led by former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon. Now they needed a contractor to do some actual wall-building.

Fisher accepted. If he couldn’t build the government’s border wall, he’d build Bannon’s private one instead.

Eighteen months later, Bannon and three others from We Build the Wall have been arrested and accused of fraud for allegedly siphoning more than $1.3 million away from the project. They pleaded not guilty in federal court last month, denouncing the charges as politically motivated. A trial is scheduled for May.

Fisher’s fortunes have been going in the opposite direction.

After completing the New Mexico border wall section and another private span with We Build the Wall in South Texas, he landed a $400 million government contract in December. In May, Fisher got a $1.3 billion award - the largest wall contract to date - and a $289 million contract in August.

Altogether, the Trump administration has bestowed $2 billion in wall contracts on Fisher during the past nine months, a lucrative streak for a company that earlier had been repeatedly passed over by the Army Corps of Engineers in favor of larger and more-established firms.

“I’m just proud to be part of securing the southern border, as an American,” Fisher said when reached by phone in Arizona, where his crews are blasting at the rugged mountains between Nogales and Sasabe.

Through ties to GOP figures close to the president, including Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., and the partnership with We Build the Wall, Fisher has hacked the federal procurement process to become Trump’s go-to builder at the border. Fisher’s ascent is as much the result of hustle and self-promotion as the highly personalized way Trump has managed the construction of his $15 billion steel-and-concrete barrier, one of the most expensive federal infrastructure projects in U.S. history.

Fisher Industries workers drop pieces of the border wall into place on May 24, 2019, in Sunland Park, N.M. Fisher marketed his business for being willing to take contracts others wouldn't. (Photos for The Washington Post by Jordyn Rozensky and Justin Hamel)

Fisher acknowledges that his work for We Build the Wall allowed him to promote his company and showcase its ability to work in challenging terrain. But during the months Fisher has racked up government contracts, the privately built barriers he installed for We Build the Wall have been dogged by claims of shoddy workmanship and design flaws.

The fencing he put up in New Mexico for We Build the Wall is too short for government specifications, according to a CBP memo published last month by the Nation that laid out the agency’s concerns about the structure. It was built too far back from the international border line, it lacks hydrology studies and permits, and its sensor cables were installed on the wrong side of the fence, leaving them more vulnerable to vandalism, according to the memo.

“Performance during the execution period was not consistent with Fisher’s claims,” CBP wrote. “Their performance on this small project shows that some claims may have been inflated due to lack of experience with this type of work.”

In South Texas, where Fisher installed three miles of barriers along the muddy riverbanks of the Rio Grande at a cost of $20 million to $30 million last winter, crews have struggled to contain erosion, leaving the structure at risk of toppling or being swept away. The fence has cut off access to the river bank for Border Patrol agents, so when illegal crossers arrive on the U.S. side, agents have go all the way around to make an arrest.

Fisher added a gravel road to the site this month so agents can drive next to the river, but recent photos of the site show it is also washing away in places.

Fisher said the structures he builds will endure for decades, while acknowledging he did not follow CBP specifications on either of the barriers he installed with We Build the Wall. His goal was to prove himself, he said. It worked.

“We built in two of the hardest environments you’ll find along the border,” Fisher said.

Fisher’s defy-the-doubters marketing fit neatly into Bannon’s fundraising efforts and the right-wing populist image he created for We Build the Wall as a grass roots campaign to support Trump and belittle the federal bureaucracy. Fisher is “an American patriot, a great mentor and a guy who knows how to build a wall,” Bannon told the audience of his “War Room: Pandemic” show.

SUNLAND PARK, NEW MEXICO - MAY 24: Fisher Industries workers move section two and three on Friday, May 24, 2019 in Sunland Park, New Mexico, on land owned by American Eagle Brick Co, near International Boundary Monument No. 1 where New Mexico, Texas and Mexico come together. (Photo by Jordyn Rozensky and Justin Hamel for The Washington Post)

‘Assembly line’

Fisher, who is not named in the indictment against Bannon and the three others, said he has not spoken to federal investigators about their criminal probe of We Build the Wall.

The indictment mentions an unidentified “construction company” prosecutors say participated in a $150,000 kickback scheme funneling cash to Bannon and Brian Kolfage, We Build the Wall’s founder and president, but Fisher said that unnamed company is not his.

Fisher also adamantly denied that he is unnamed “associate 2” who appears to be cooperating with authorities.

“Absolutely not,” Fisher said. “We’ve never been talked to by the government, the FBI or the Justice Department.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Fisher, 50, discussed his family, his brothers' criminal troubles and his relationship to Sen. Cramer while distancing himself from We Build the Wall and its combative social media approach. Fisher said he has not had any dealings with the group since January.

“I don’t like any of that stuff on Twitter,” he said, referring to the taunts and insults Kolfage and other We Build the Wall members hurl online. “I let them know that I disliked it and I thought it was causing problems.”

The group’s belligerent style made for an odd pairing with Fisher, who employs Midwestern manners, speaks with a northern prairie accent and doesn’t tweet or troll.

The history of his family company is rocky. His father, Eugene, was a self-taught inventor and gravel miner who built heavy-equipment businesses in the western North Dakota town of Dickinson. When Eugene Fisher put the company in his wife’s name, she filed for divorce and took control. Tommy Fisher’s own mother then fired him.

Eugene Fisher regained control and eventually got back together with Tommy’s mother. Tommy moved to Arizona to branch out, and the company grew as it landed contracts to build highways and other public infrastructure in the fast-growing southwest.

The family’s North Dakota operation struggled. An older half brother, David Fisher, was convicted of possessing child pornography in 2005, an episode Tommy referred to as “trouble with computers.” His younger brother Michael was sentenced to serve time in federal prison for tax fraud in 2009 while “battling demons with alcohol,” Fisher said. He bought his brother out and took full control of Fisher Industries, Fisher Sand and Gravel and its subsidiaries.

In 2010, Fisher won a $400 million contract to build a highway bridge outside Reno, the largest-ever contract awarded by the Nevada Department of Transportation. Fisher said other companies didn’t want to take the job. He crafted his 1,500-employee company’s identity around pledges to prove critics wrong and pull off jobs others thought impossible.

When the newly elected Trump administration began soliciting border wall design concepts in early 2017, Fisher was one of the companies picked to put up a prototype. Most of the other firms avoided media attention, but Fisher went on Fox News repeatedly to promote his company and tout his construction technique, at one point offering to build hundreds of miles of barriers for a fraction of the cost his competitors were seeking. It wasn’t the procurement process established by the Army Corps of Engineers, but it got the attention of the president and Bannon’s group.

Some of the terrain where Fisher is working is among the steepest and most rugged of the entire border, but he has been able to undercut his competitors in part as a result of his company’s unusual building technique.

Instead of using a crane and metal scaffolding to hold the steel fencing in place long enough for their concrete base to harden, Fisher deploys teams of excavators to set the panels and prop them up. No other firm appears to be building that way.

“We were looking at the border wall as a very large assembly line,” Fisher said. “It’s linear, so our big thing was to figure out something that is consistent.”

Fisher is now well-positioned to win more border wall contracts in coming months, so long as wall construction continues. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged to halt construction of the wall; Fisher said he will continue building unless he’s told to stop.

“I really believe that if you’re going to have border security, it’s got to be on the border,” Fisher said, likening the steel barrier to a football game. “If you have no defensive line and try to tackle with the secondary, it’s too late.”

‘We pretty much cut ties’

Like Trump, Fisher has been fueled by grievance - in Fisher’s case, against the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Army Corps did not initially accept his company into its pool of vetted bidders who are eligible to compete for contracts, citing concerns about his limited record and missed deadlines on past government work. Fisher sued the Army Corps last fall, and he maxed out his campaign donations to Cramer and other GOP figures.

Fisher also hired the North Dakota lobbying firm Odney, whose top consultant ran Cramer’s senate campaign, paying the company more than $100,000 since 2017, records show.

“He’s written some nice checks,” said Jim Fuglie, a North Dakota political blogger who knew Fisher’s father. He expressed astonishment that “a little cement plant out in Dickinson has turned into a national company.”

“North Dakotans, when they make a lot of money, tend to drift toward contributions to politicians, because it buys them something they don’t otherwise have,” Fuglie said. “There comes a time when it pays off.”

Cramer has long said his support for Fisher - including promoting the company in conversations with Trump - is driven by a desire to help a constituent’s business.

The senator has railed against the Army Corps’s procurement process and at one point held up a Trump nominee to force the Corps to share contracting award information with him. Some Army Corps officials worried Cramer would share the proprietary information with Fisher.

In an email, the senator from North Dakota said it was unfair that Fisher had been rejected because the Army Corps wanted “qualified builders with experience ‘in building border walls.’”

“That’s like telling a skyscraper builder they aren’t qualified to remodel your 3rd bathroom because they’ve never done it before,” Cramer said. “That should alarm you more than a senator from North Dakota unapologetically advocating for a company from North Dakota.”

Cramer also defended Fisher’s campaign donations, in a reply he shared with a conservative broadcaster in North Dakota, WZFG the Flag, which frequently invites Cramer and Fisher on as guests.

“It would seem weird for someone who wants to build part of a border wall to not express their preference for candidates who support the building of said wall, especially when their opponent opposes it,” Cramer added. “Again, I remember when political expression was championed by journalism. Oh well, maybe that’s why Congress has a more favorable rating among Americans than reporters.”

Raini Brunson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, declined to address Cramer’s criticisms, noting that the government’s $400 million award to Fisher in December remains under investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general. The audit was triggered after Democratic lawmakers raised concerns that Trump, Cramer and others inappropriately attempted to steer contracts to Fisher.

Brunson said the agency follows the procurement process established by federal law.

“Companies are awarded contracts when they are determined to provide the best value to the government for the particular procurement action being undertaken,” she said.

Tommy Fisher, right, talks with Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., at the lawmaker's office in Washington, D.C. (Sen. Kevin Cramer's office via AP, File)

Fisher’s spending on political contributions has been dwarfed by his investment in the private border barriers he installed with We Build the Wall.

The group paid Fisher $6.9 million for the span in New Mexico, Fisher said, but he said he spent $20 million to $30 million on the three-mile section along the Rio Grande in Texas. We Build the Wall sent him a single payment for $1.5 million, he said, far short of the $8 million to $9 million he was expecting to receive from Bannon’s group.

“Everything got cut off, and they didn’t pay any more,” Fisher said of Bannon’s group. “At that point, we pretty much cut ties.”

Federal prosecutors say Bannon diverted more than $1 million in donations toward accounts under his control, while Kolfage spent $350,000 on home renovations, a boat, jewelry and credit card debt. Kolfage had told donors he would take no salary and that “100 percent” of their money would go to the barriers.

We Build the Wall did not respond to a request for comment.

Fisher has valued the riverfront barrier in Mission, Tex., at $42 million, in hopes of selling it to CBP. But there is no indication the government wants to acquire it. CBP is proceeding with its own structure along the same stretch of border - just further back along the river levee, where it prefers to build, outside the Rio Grande’s flood path.

Fisher said he views his riverfront barrier as a research and development experiment for his company, aimed to prove to the Trump administration that it is possible to erect barriers right on the banks of the river despite the unstable soils and risk of flood damage.

He wasn’t trying to show up the Army Corps, he said, even though We Build the Wall and Kolfage have posted multiple tweets attacking the Corps’s preference for building on safer, higher ground along the flood levees, which are sometimes a mile or more away from the river demarcating the international border.

“It’s obvious that what he wanted to do was get notoriety,” said Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center, a private preserve located just upriver from the project, who is suing Fisher and We Build the Wall.

Wright likened Fisher’s recent efforts to patch up erosion and fill gullies as a Band-Aid.

“I’m not sure how they are going to maintain it,” she said. “They’re going to have to come down after every single rainfall or flooding event.”

The woes of Fisher’s riverfront wall have deepened in recent weeks. After claiming the structure was worth $42 million, Fisher got a $500,000 tax bill from county assessors, which he said he will challenge. And after a report from ProPublica and the Texas Tribune quoting engineers who predict the structure’s collapse into the river, Trump weighed in on Twitter.

“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” the president tweeted July 12. “It was only done to make me look bad, and [perhaps] it now doesn’t even work.”

The private group Trump accused of trying to make him look bad was We Build the Wall. But the barrier was Fisher’s. And less than a month later, Fisher won his third contract from the Trump administration, for $289 million.

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