More on Minutemen Finances: Smoke and Mirrors on Background Checks

Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, took to the vigilante group’s online message board to blast Washington Times reporter Jerry Seper for his articles questioning MCDC’s financial management. “This guy is obtuse and can’t be this downright dumb which is why I feel he purposefully misstates and, misquotes me and others,” wrote Simcox of the reporter at the right-wing newspaper, whom he called an “idiot.” Simcox went on, “Sinister Seper distorts/confuses facts on purpose -is he stupid or is he doing it on purpose- out to bring us down -don’t underestimate the Bush family connection.”

One can understand Simcox’s anger. Most news media – including, until recently, the Washington Times – have been more than willing to accept Simcox’s claims about volunteers, fundraising, and spending at face value. More and more, however, it appears they don’t add up. The heavily marketed “border fence project” was downgraded from an “Israeli-style” barrier to a “standard cattle fence” that “wouldn’t stop a tricycle,” in the words of one vigilante. Now, the IRS disclosure form (990) the group has made available – while limited to calendar year 2005 – calls into question more of the claims made by its charismatic founder.

In September of 2005, as the group was gearing up for one of its “vigils” along the U.S.-Mexico border, the group’s Texas coordinator quit, alleging financial impropriety. “Chris is one of these people, he’s almost intoxicating to listen to, and you want to believe what he says,” the disgruntled former Minuteman leader said. “But he doesn’t back it up.”

For example, Simcox was apparently charging $50 a head for registration of volunteers:

Simcox said the registration fee covers background checks provided by a Maryland-based company called SentryLink, although he did not permit company officials to verify for a reporter how much the checks cost.

Simcox has maintained that “All of our volunteers are thoroughly screened — they go through criminal background checks, psychological vetting, we have an Internet-based search system where we look for their e-mail addresses, their names or anything on any site that could be racist. We go to great lengths to make sure we screen our people.”

At the time of the October, 2005 “vigil,” Simcox was claiming 4,000 volunteers. SentryLink charges $20 for a criminal background check. That works out to an expense of $80,000. Even if MCDC exaggerated its turnout, or if it did not collect fees from all of its volunteers, it does claim a revenue of $54,384 from registration fees. But the group’s IRS filing for 2005 – including the October “vigil” – lists just $974 spent on “volunteer background checks.”

$974 covers only 48 background checks with the company Simcox claimed he was using.

But more mysterious in the group’s IRS filing is the $277,711 spent on “program and management expenses” – more than half of the group’s budget. In the audit summary posted on the group’s web site, this number is classified as “professional services.” Almost $100,000 is designated as fundraising services – implying that, apart from the $30,000+ spent on fundraising expenses reported elsewhere in the document, this amount went to a consultant working as the group’s professional fundraiser.

As for the rest – over $174,000, the largest single part of the budget by far – it is unclear where this money went. In describing its budget as “62.47% to programs,” the Minutemen lump the $174,000 as a “program” expense, emphasizing “services and management for border operations which includes expenseable field equipment.” However, field equipment and supplies are reported elsewhere in the document, as well as office and operational expenses.

In contrast, Seper, the Washington Times reporter, puts this under “program management and operating expenses,” and emphasizes that only 5 percent of the group’s budget went to volunteers in the field. How one categorizes this $174,000 largely determines how one judges the financial management of the Minutemen.

It’s possible that the missing pages of the independent audit detail exactly where this money went. Lacking any more information, one can only speculate  about whether this “professional services” expense  could be a consulting fee, perhaps to the full-time, unsalaried president of the group, Chris Simcox.