Why a private section of the border wall is allegedly failing

60 Minutes reports on the construction firm that earned billions of dollars in government contracts after working with a conservative fundraising campaign accused of fraud to build sections of the border wall on private land that engineers say will likely fail.

Private border wall facing erosion
Private border wall facing erosion 13:16

This summer, Federal agents arrested President Trump's former Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, on a yacht off the coast of Connecticut. Bannon and three others are accused of defrauding donors to We Build the Wall, a conservative fund raising campaign that raised millions of dollars to privately build sections of wall on the border with Mexico. Prosecutors say the defendants took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the fund for their own personal use. They've pleaded not guilty. Before the arrests, We Build the Wall had completed two walls. Less than a mile in New Mexico and three miles in Texas.  
 
Tonight, you will hear about the contractor who built both of those walls, Fisher Sand and Gravel out of North Dakota, and how they leveraged those jobs to earn billions of dollars in government contracts with support from President Trump. Last month, reports surfaced that one of their private walls was falling apart. So, we went to Mission, Texas, to see for ourselves. 

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The border wall on the Rio Grande

We drove over the flood levee, down a dusty road that dead-ends at a sugar cane farm. And there it was. The so-called "wall" looks more like a fence. It's steel spine curves three miles down the banks of the Rio Grande and stretches upwards of 18 feet high. It sits on private property, so the only way for us to get a better look is from the water. From here, it appears fine. But Javier Peña, an attorney who represents neighboring landowners, noticed erosion from summer storms was quite literally covered up. He hired engineers to inspect it.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What have you seen?

Javier Peña: Massive erosion. There's cracks in the foundation. The foundation is crumbling.  There was an 8 foot hole under the fence. There are these trenches all along the wall, the sand just washing away. From the experts that have actually reviewed the site there is no differing opinions.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What is the opinion?

Javier Peña: That it's not a question of whether it will fail, it's when it's going to fail and it already started to fail.

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Javier Peña

To understand why this is happening, Peña says you have to go back to the fall of 2019 when a character called Foreman Mike, from Florida, a mouthpiece for We Build the Wall's fundraising drive, showed up in Mission, Texas.

Foreman Mike in video: We're building three and a half miles of wall. The people of Texas are rising up because We Build the Wall and Fisher Industries are going forward with this build. 

We Build the Wall was founded by Iraq war veteran Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee. They wanted to raise a billion dollars to, "build Trump's wall." They targeted Mission, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, one of the busiest illegal border crossing areas in the country.
  
Foreman Mike in video: All along the border, we're here building, you've got to help out.
  
Javier Peña: They had started producing the videos promoting this project. And they were on the property. They started clearing the property before anyone really knew what was going on.

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"Foreman Mike" in a video

The company clearing the river bank to build the private wall was Fisher Sand and Gravel. Tommy  Fisher, the company's CEO, had been trying and failing to land a lucrative border wall contract from the  government since 2017, when the Trump administration began soliciting wall design concepts. 

Fisher was one of the companies to put up a prototype. Officials at the Department of Homeland Security said it had design flaws. A second bid was also rejected. Frustrated, Tommy Fisher took another approach.   

Tommy Fisher on Fox News, 3/14/18: We really believe with our patent pending system we can bring sexy back to construction. 

He became a fixture on Fox News, the president's favorite network at the time. At times, sounding less like a contractor and more like a contestant on a reality show, pandering to an audience of one.  

Tommy Fisher on Fox News, 4/4/19: You know, hopefully the President will see this as well and he's a guy who says he can cut through bureaucracy.
  
Two weeks after that appearance on Fox,  in April of 2019...

Sean Hannity interviewing President Trump, 4/25/19: I don't know if you heard about this contractor that said he can build the whole wall for a lot cheaper than anybody else?

President Trump to Hannity: Yes, I am, we're dealing with him actually. It's Fisher. Comes from North Dakota. Recommended strongly by a great new senator as you know, Kevin Cramer.

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Tommy Fisher

By May of 2019, Tommy Fisher had the president's attention but still couldn't land a contract to build the government's wall. The Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees border wall construction, pointed to the company's lack of experience building border walls. To prove they could, Fisher teamed up with We Build the Wall. First in New Mexico, and later, here on the banks of the Rio Grande in Mission.

Building on the banks of any river is difficult but building on the raging Rio Grande is especially challenging, made more complicated because the US-Mexico border runs straight down the middle of it.  So any plans to build on it must be approved by the International Boundary and Water Commission or IBWC. Fisher Sand and Gravel didn't get that approval before they started bulldozing.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What steps did they skip?  
   
Javier Peña: All of them. (LAUGH)  
   
Sharyn Alfonsi: What should they have done?  
   
Javier Peña: They should've gone to the IBWC, to the EPA, and presented their plan, an actual plan.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What about this idea that, you know, this is private money being used on private land and a landowner can do whatever he wants to do--  

Javier Peña: They absolutely can do whatever they want on their property as long as it doesn't affect other people's property.

Sharyn Alfonsi: And you think the wall infringes on other--  
   
Javier Peña: Clearly does. The way the  bollards were built it's gonna cause clogging of that wall.

Sharyn Alfonsi: So those bollards, trash or debris could get stuck in there and then the water's  gonna change direction--  

Javier Peña: It's a giant rake, just like a rake in your yard. And it's gonna catch all that debris and redirect that water. 

Peña filed a lawsuit on behalf of a neighboring wildlife refuge called The National Butterfly Center, which feared the wall would cause flooding to its property. The U.S. government also sued on behalf of the IBWC. Good walls make good neighbors, but this wall did not.

Foreman Mike in video: We've got rogue priests running around, anti-Trump, anti-wall.

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Father  Roy Snipes

We Build the Wall's Brian Kolfage launched attacks against anyone who opposed their wall. Falsely saying The National Butterfly Center was the site of a "rampant sex trade." And that the Army Corps of Engineers was part of the "deep state." He even took aim at Father Roy Snipes, a local priest who opposed the Trump wall, accusing him of promoting child trafficking. Also, not true.

Sharyn Alfonsi: We Build the Wall people came after you personally.

Roy Snipes: Isn't that something? I didn't even know who they were.
 
Sharyn Alfonsi: They're coming after-- the local priest. (LAUGH)  

Roy Snipes: Yeah. I guess they're not from around here, because from around here, we can-- even mom and dad can disagree about things without being mean and nasty. 

Last December, Brian Kolfage bragged in an interview that We Build the Wall had a direct line to the White House.

Brian Kolfage in video: We have Chris Kobach and Steve Bannon and a lot of people that are tied in with the Trump administration so we are able to back channel things to the administration and let them know what we're doing.

But what they were doing was falling apart. A recent engineering inspection, after summer storms, revealed deep gashes under the foundation of the wall. That's Marianna Trevino-Wright, who runs The Butterfly Center, lying underneath it.

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  Marianna Trevino-Wright underneath the wall

Marianna Trevino-Wright: This was a normal seasonal rainfall.  

 
Sharyn Alfonsi: And what happened to the wall?  
   
Marianna Trevino-Wright: The foundation washed out from under enormous sections of it.  

Sharyn Alfonsi: His attorney said after this that this is just a normal part of new construction. 
   
Marianna Trevino-Wright: If you walked out of your new house and had a 30 foot hole under your home foundation, would you consider that normal?  
  
Sharyn Alfonsi: There's the end of the wall right there, there's nothing to stop you from just walking around.

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  Rudy Karisch

The Fisher wall doesn't attach to anything on either side. We were there while part of the federal government wall project was being built, directly behind Fisher's wall, on top of the levee to protect it from flooding. Rudy Karisch is the recently retired station chief for the Border Patrol in the Rio Grande Valley.  

Sharyn Alfonsi: So you were the station chief when Tommy Fisher started building his private wall.

Rudy Karisch: Yes.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Did at any point get a chance to look at the specs before it was built? Did they ever--

Rudy Karisch: No. It should not be placed directly on a river to where when you get a heavy rainstorm-- you have a probability of having that fence washed away. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: I mean, a kid builds a sandcastle on the edge of the ocean, they know what's  gonna  happen, right? 
   
Rudy Karisch: Yes, correct. 

Karisch wasn't the only one at customs with concerns about Fisher's work. In a leaked memo about the private walls, customs officers reported Fisher "inflated" claims about the quality and speed of his work "due to lack of experience."

We wanted to ask him about that, but Tommy Fisher did not respond to our request for an interview. 

Earlier this month, he did speak to the Washington Post and told them that he paid $20 million to $30 million to build the wall in Mission and that his partners at We Build the Wall only sent him a single payment for a million and a half dollars, far short of what he was expecting. He says he cut ties with the group even before Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage were arrested for fraud. He's denied any involvement and hasn't been charged.

But Tommy Fisher's showcase wall seems to have paid off. Despite questions about his partners and the quality of his work, Fisher Sand and Gravel has been awarded almost $2 billion in government contracts to build miles of wall.

Javier Peña: We live in a very divided country right now. We Build the Wall,  Kolfage and Fisher took advantage of that, found a way to target that fight and profit off of it.  
   
Sharyn Alfonsi: And when you say profit. It's not just filling the coffers of We Build the Wall. I mean, Fisher now has almost $2 billion of contracts to build more walls--  
   
Javier Peña: Of taxpayer-funded contracts to build more walls when this wall is already falling down.  
   
So how did that happen?  Three former administration officials tell 60 Minutes that President Trump quote "pressured" government officials to direct wall contracts to Fisher Sand and Gravel.

Those same sources say that on March 7, 2019, the president summoned DHS officials and Lt. General Todd Semonite, who ran the Army Corps of Engineers, to the Oval Office. 

Sources inside the room say the president wanted to know why Tommy Fisher, who promised he could build the wall cheaper and faster, wasn't selected to build it and "exploded into a tirade."   

They say DHS officials explained to the president that it was inappropriate for the president to influence the bidding process. But according to those sources, the "pressure continued" with a handwritten note from the president, an email from his personal secretary and calls from his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Administration officials did not respond to our request for a comment.

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Democratic Congressman Bennie Thompson

Fisher Sand and Gravel was awarded the single largest border wall contract, $1.3 billion. Congressman Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi, is the chairman of the House Committee On Homeland Security.

Sharyn Alfonsi: What is the problem with the president advocating for a specific contractor?  

Bennie Thompson: It's against the procurement regulations of the federal government. 

Fisher Sand and Gravel has a checkered past. In 2009, the company admitted to tax fraud.  They've racked up thousands of environmental and safety violations in six states, and almost $2 million in fines.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do those things figure in typically when you're-- when you're deciding who should get a contract?  
  
Bennie Thompson: Fisher could potentially have been debarred from bidding on any federal contracts. But they weren't. 

Bennie Thompson: The president made no bones about his support for Fisher. And-- and  guess what? Fisher got the contract. It speaks for itself. 

Sources also told us that Republican Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota had been aggressively trying to steer contracts to Fisher Sand and Gravel. They say Senator Cramer demanded sensitive information from the Army Corps of Engineers about competing bids.  

Bennie Thompson: When some of those documents you request gives an individual a potential unfair advantage in the procurement process, then I think that has to be reviewed. We asked the Inspector General to look at it.

Senator Cramer says he was just exercising Congressional oversight and gave Fisher no information. The Department of Defense Inspector General's investigation is ongoing. 

Javier Peña: They need to look at Tommy Fisher's and Brian Kolfage's and Bannon's own words when they say that they were working back channels with the Trump administration to get these contracts.    

Sharyn Alfonsi: You know, they might say it's-- that's just politics.  

Javier Peña: That's not politics. That's corruption. That's the swamp that Trump claimed he was gonna be draining.

Statement from Senator Cramer:
President Trump campaigned on securing the southern border and building the wall. As a member of the committees which oversee the Army Corps of Engineers - the agency responsible for building the wall - I have exercised my oversight authority to highlight the Army Corps' objectionable contracting processes and ensure this project is completed efficiently and effectively. Fisher Industries is a North Dakota staple with an excellent track record, and I am glad they were chosen by the Corps to assist in this effort.

Produced by Oriana Zill de Granados. Associate producer, Emily Gordon. Broadcast associates, Elizabeth Germino and Sheena Samu. Edited by Richard Buddenhagen.