How Fisher Sand & Gravel secured $2bn Trump border wall contracts
- Fisher Sand & Gravel has secured almost $2 billion worth of contracts to build parts of President Donald Trump’s planned southern border wall.
- The company’s prototype was publicly rejected in 2018, but after a mix of lobbying, media appearances, and pressure from Trump himself, it got the contracts anyway.
- Business Insider analysed Fisher’s track record, and found a mixed picture of demonstrable success, along with troubling claims and violations.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In March 2018, cameras followed President Donald Trump on a visit to San Diego, California, to review eight prototypes submitted by companies hoping to secure contracts to build the southern border wall.
He told reporters: “We’re looking very much at the wall with some see-through capability on the other side and then solid concrete on top … they can’t climb some of these walls. Some of them they can. Those are the walls we’re not using.”
President Donald Trump speaks during a tour of border wall prototypes in San Diego, March 13, 2018
Which was a problem for North Dakota contractor Tommy Fisher, whose company had submitted a solid concrete proposal.
His bid for a border wall contract may well have faltered at that very public rejection.
But by August 2020, his company had secured four separate government border wall contracts — including the largest one issued — with a combined value of almost $2 billion.
Fisher Sand & Gravel, a family company founded in 1952, has endured a checkered past. Its history is filled with successes but also littered with environmental and labor violations, on top of having been fined $1.16 million in a 2009 tax fraud case.
And a former partner in the family business — Fisher’s brother David — was jailed and ordered to pay restitution for possession of child pornography, some of which depicted a child who was hired to help with office chores, in 2005, according to local newspaper the Bismarck Tribune.
David is no longer with the company and has served his full sentence.
Fisher Sand & Gravel has also been mired in legal challenges to its private efforts to build sections of border wall, a stepping stone which gave Fisher to public platform to lobby for his contracts with the federal government.
These projects stem from a partnerships with We Build The Wall, a crowdfunded project fronted by veteran Brian Kolfage and Steve Bannon, who have been indicted for fraud over their fundraising for the organization.
Fisher, who is not under investigation for fraud, has since distanced himself from the project.
At the same time, some sources have spoken glowingly to Business Insider about Fisher, and how his company’s reputation for succeeding with “impossible” projects is well-earned.
Business Insider made multiple requests to interview Tommy Fisher or a company representative for this story, but did not receive a reply.
‘We like the tough jobs’
Mild-mannered, occasionally boyish in his enthusiasm, and sporting a distaste for petty social media fights, Fisher might not seem the most obvious person to compare with the president.
“President Trump’s kind of got his own style and he’s loud,” Kolfage told Business Insider. “When you meet Tommy, he’s soft spoken … You wouldn’t expect him to be [a millionaire], he’s very low key.”
Demeanor aside, Fisher seems to be cut in the same mold. Trump famously leveraged publicity, litigation and political glad-handing to the benefit of his real estate business — tactics that Fisher has brought to his quest to leapfrog bureaucratic and presidential disapproval and land $2 billion in public funds.
As Fisher’s website states: “We like the tough jobs.”
Lobbying Trump through cable
Despite its presidential rejection in San Diego, Fisher Sand & Gravel remained as one of four possible companies in the running for the contract to build the section of wall there.
Tommy Fisher went on a media blitz to promote the company, in news segments ostensibly for general viewers, but that appear aimed directly at Trump. The president is an avid Fox viewer who has repeatedly seemed to act on ideas floated on the network’s programming.
“The president, if he allows us to play and our team at Fisher Industries to play, I guarantee and no different than Tom Brady, once we get in we never come out, and if we don’t perform the president can fire us,” he told Laura Ingraham in March 2018, appearing as a guest to discuss “growing border wall backlash.”
(Fisher Industries is a subsidiary of Fisher Sand & Gravel.)
He took the appeal to conservative radio as well, claiming he would guarantee the construction for 150 years. Using a patent-pending system, he said, he would build walls faster and better than any of his competition.
“I love it,” said Ingraham during his appearance on her show. “I love it. I’m not taking sides on which prototype is best, but this is why you’re a good businessman.”
On outlets like this, he presented himself as a can-do builder who takes on projects no-one else will touch.
His rhetoric echoes that of Trump in campaign mode, who promises quick solutions to complex problems.
Although he was to work with reactionaries like Steve Bannon, he took a different tone, attempting to give a humanitarian veneer to the wall.
On the Day One podcast, which focuses on interviews with entrepreneurs, he reasoned that a border wall is “more humane” than the existing situation. It would, he said, put an end to migrants seeking entry to the US being taken advantage of by traffickers.
“The main thing is if they knew unequivocally that there was a border security system that was going to meet [them] there, then I don’t think they could be talked into as easy to try to do this,” he told host Simon Moran.
Friends in high places
The media appearances started to have an effect. In early 2019, Senator Kevin Cramer told The Washington Post that Trump “always brings [Fisher Sand & Gravel] up,” in spite of earlier dismissing their design.
Later, four Trump administration officials had told the Post that the president had personally and repeatedly pushed for Tommy Fisher’s company to be considered.
Cramer, a senator for Fisher’s home state of North Dakota, had long championed the company. In 2018, he brought Tommy as his guest for that year’s State of the Union Address.
“I am proud to know a North Dakota company is a finalist to construct the border wall between our nation and Mexico,” local newspaper The Dickinson Press reported him saying at the time.
Cramer is among several Republicans to have received a combined $50,000 or so in donations from the Fisher or his family over the years, records at the Center for Responsive Politics show. Cramer told the Washington Post that it was natural to want to support a company founded in his state.
Business Insider has approached him for an interview, but did not receive a reply.
But by March 2019 he appeared to have lost patience with government procurement processes.
In a letter to then-DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen seen by the Washington Examiner, Cramer fulminated that the Army Corps of Engineers — which was overseeing the contracts — had “wasted taxpayer funds and been egregiously slow in constructing physical barriers.”
He urged the body to give way to private companies that could work faster.
Also fighting in Fisher’s corner were lobbyists, to whom his company has paid a total of $127,500 since 2017, the most recent records at the Center for Responsive Politics show. The top consultant at Odney, the company hired, also ran Cramer’s senate campaign, according to The Washington Post.
In April, Fisher took an alternative, unsolicited wall offer to a meeting with the Department of Homeland Security, the Examiner reported: 218 miles of wall to be built within 13 months.
Priced at $3.3 billion, the offer effectively halved the existing projected cost. At the start of the year, Trump had shut down the government over a request to Congress for $5.6 billion for 234 miles of wall.
Trump was impressed, and told Sean Hannity that Fisher Sand & Gravel had been “recommended strongly” by Cramer, according to the Examiner.
But not long after, contracts worth just under $1 billion, for wall construction in Yuma, Arizona, went to two other companies.
On April 25 2019 — the same day Trump was singing his praises to Hannity — Fisher sued the Army Corps, citing a “highly flawed solicitation and award” process, according to the Examiner.
Fisher slammed the Army Corps for being preoccupied with procedure over construction, claiming that they had had doubts about the truncated time frame and cost projections (the Army Corps did not comment in response).
“There’s either a huge disconnect with the Army Corps or it doesn’t know what the hell it’s doing,” the Examiner reported him as saying.
The legal challenge failed, but by the end of the month, the Army Corps had nonetheless rescinded the Yuma contracts “to remedy a flaw in the acquisition process,” according to the Examiner.
Cramer, too, started playing hardball, demanding to see border wall contracts and claiming that he had been “deputized” by the president to oversee the Army Corps procurement process, The Washington Post reported in August 2019.
When the Army Corps refused, on the grounds that the contracts held sensitive information, he held up the confirmation of a White House budget official, the paper reported.
Convincing Bannon and Kolfage
Outside of the government contracting process, Fisher appeared to find a different way to build the wall.
In April 2019, veteran Brian Kolfage saw one of Fisher’s Fox appearances on YouTube and was impressed.
“He was kind of out there, basically advertising to the government about how fast you could build and how good his system was,” Kolfage told Business Insider. “And it caught my attention.”
Kolfage, a veteran who received a Purple Heart following severe injury in Iraq, is the public face of crowdfunding initiative We Build The Wall. The project launched in December 2018 under the slightly different name We Fund The Wall.
The project thrived against the backdrop of a showdown in Congress, where Trump was demanding $5 billion in wall funding and threatened a government shutdown in the process.
Fisher took part in events like the three-day “Wall-A-Thon,” a three-day fundraising show hosted by We Build The Wall’s founders in June 2019, which was broadcast on social media. The overall campaign raised nearly $3 million in its first three days, according to CNBC, and by mid-2020 the total had passed $25 million.
Its board were high-profile Trump allies, including former campaign strategist and White House adviser Steve Bannon, and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.
When it transpired that just handing cash to the government was legally difficult, they tweaked the name and set up a 501(c)(4) non-profit to commission wall building of their own.
Soon after Kolfage spotted Fisher, the group sent Kobach to a public showcase of the company’s wall-building method, which was also attended by seven members of Congress.
Cramer was among the attendees, as was Florida rep. Matt Gaetz. At one point, video footage of the day shows Cramer in the cab of an excavator, moving a large metal scaffold while remarking “this is just like Xbox, baby!”
Video of the event can be seen here:
Kolfage said the event was a clear mimicking of Trump’s event with wall prototypes two years earlier. But this time, Fisher was the star of the show. “After that demo, we were like, yeah, this guy, he’s good,” Kolfage said.
They were undeterred by the federal and state environmental violations the company racked up in the past.
According to Violation Tracker — a website that collates corporate regulation violations — companies under the Fisher Sand & Gravel umbrella paid a combined total of $697,752 in EPA fines between 2000 and 2020.
Fisher Sand & Gravel have also paid a $150,000 settlement in an employment discrimination case and just under $50,000 in workplace safety or health violation cases.
Most notoriously, its former CEO Micheal Fisher — Tommy Fisher’s brother — was imprisoned, and the company fined $1.16 million, after being found guilty of fraud in 2009. Micheal no longer works for the company.
Business Insider approached Fisher Sand & Gravel for comment on the case, but received no reply. A company spokesperson told the High Plains Reader newspaper that “Fisher is a good environmental steward and we take environmental responsibility very seriously,” adding that all fines had been paid and cases resolved.
Kolfage told Business Insider that his group looked into all of Fisher Sand & Gravel’s fines and were content that the company would not break regulations.
Such fines are “pretty common with big government contractors,” Kolfage said, adding: “We weren’t worried about him not following the law and things of that nature.”
Kolfage called Fisher “like-minded”: a highly motivated person who believed in the wall as much as they did.
Though Fisher was not, at that time, a big government contractor, he and We Build The Wall moved ahead with an agreement to build a segment of wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
The Galena Creek Bridge: “It sort of put us on the map.”
Kolfage’s good impressions were not unfounded. Fisher Sand & Gravel had previously succeeded with seemingly impossible projects.
In 2010, the Nevada Department of Transport was stuck. Seven years earlier, it had approved the construction of a badly-needed interstate freeway linking Reno and Carson City.
The Galena Creek Bridge under construction in 2011.
But after years of work the project had halted because the contractor hired to bridge the Galena Creek had bailed, saying the project was impossible. It was a monumental headache for Jeff Fontaine, then the head of the Nevada Department of Transport.
“We were getting to the point where the arches were approaching one another and ready to close, and [the company] said: ‘We can’t finish this. We don’t believe it’s safe,'” he told Business Insider.
When the DoT put out a tender, several companies told Fontaine they wouldn’t be bidding. It was too difficult.
The arches needed to meet from either side of the canyon before they could start the roadway and supports below. But high winds made that impossible, the company said.
Tommy Fisher’s company proposed a counter-intuitive solution. Instead of working from the arches down, he would go from the ground up.
“His solution was build a bridge a temporary bridge, 300 feet in the air, by building it up from the ground,” said Fontaine. “And then they built the roadway across that, and constructed the bridge from that temporary bridge.”
The Galena Creek Bridge in 2019.
Google Street View
The Galena Creek Bridge was completed. The longest cathedral-arch bridge in the world, it stood up to a 4.5-magnitude earthquake in March 2020, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal.
The bridge has become a selling point for a company that wants to show it can face impossible odds.
“After that, and some other projects we did … it sort of put us on the map that we could bond in the multi-billions,” Fisher told the Day One podcast in 2019.
The private wall begins
Fisher brought that confidence to Sunland Park, New Mexico in May 2019. Using We Build The Wall funds, he began construction of a one-and-a-half mile stretch of 18-foot wall on private land, according to NPR.
It became a draw for Trumpworld figures, including Donald Trump Jr, who used the location as his backdrop to comment on the Mueller probe during a three-day We Build The Wall symposium in July of that year. In December 2019, Acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf toured the site.
But complaints were simmering, both around the Sunland Park wall and its follow-up, a three-mile private wall along the Rio Grande in Texas.
Customs and Border Protection (CBP) had taken an interest in the New Mexico wall in November 2019, raising the prospect that it could be formally handed over to the government.
However, it found that “Performance during the execution period was not consistent with Fisher Industries’ claims,” according to an internal memo leaked to The Nation.
The memo alleged that Fisher had “inflated” its claims “due to lack of experience with this type of work,” per The Nation.
“This is not to say they cannot perform,” the memo stated. But Fisher’s “better/faster/cheaper” claims were in doubt, it said.
While Fisher had promised 2,200 panels to be placed within four working days, it took double that time, with workers engaged 24 hours a day, the memo said.
The memo also highlighted troubles Fisher was having with Rio Grande wall, which it noted had been constructed without consulting the International Boundary and Water Commission (IBWC).
The IBWC concluded that the wall violates an international boundary treaty between the US and Mexico, and would require modification from Fisher to fix, The Monitor reported.
Meanwhile, there was trouble with other neighbors. Marianna Treviño Wright, the executive director of the National Butterfly Centre in Texas, has two lawsuits over the private wall, which sits two properties along from her own in Texas.
She is suing Fisher for damages, alleging that the wall will cause erosion of the Butterfly Center’s land.
She is also suing Brian Kolfage, alleging that he defamed her by orchestrating attacks on social media in response to her resistance to the project.
An engineers’ report commissioned by the center and seen by Business Insider found that Fisher’s wall “will either fail, damage adjacent lands, or both,” due to erosion of the sandy soil underneath. This could be exacerbated by flooding caused by debris caught in the bars of the wall, the report said.
Fisher, whose company commissioned its own engineer’s report, dismissed the concerns and said the problems could be easily fixed, NPR reported.
An image showing erosion in the ground supporting the Fisher Sand & Gravel wall in Mission, Texas, four months after Fisher made repairs to earlier erosion.
National Butterfly Center
Three federal contracts in rapid succession
As work continued on the Rio Grande wall, in December 2019 Fisher finally secured a federal contract worth just under $400 million to build in Yuma, Arizona.
Almost immediately, Rep Bennie G Thompson — chair of the House Committee of Homeland Security, and a Democrat — requested a review of the procurement process.
Thompson raised concerns of “inappropriate influence,” citing news reports of Trump’s pro-Fisher stance as well as noting that Acting Director of Homeland Security Chad Wolf toured Fisher’s privately-built wall in New Mexico two weeks earlier.
The Department of Defense Inspector General opened an audit that is still underway. Nonetheless, three more contracts came through in rapid succession, including the largest one so far: $1.3 billion for 42 miles in Arizona.
Thompson alleged that the contract was not publicly announced — it was the Arizona Daily Star which broke the news that Fisher Sand & Gravel had received the largest wall-building contract to date.
That contract was awarded by the Army Corps of Engineers. However, not long after this, Customs and Border Protection announced that they would be awarding their own contracts, bypassing the Army Corps altogether. The change favored Fisher again.
By August 3, Fisher had secured another $290 million contract to build 17 miles of wall in Webb County, Texas, according to Thompson’s letter.
Roger Maier, public affairs specialist for Customs and Border Protection, told Business Insider: “USACE [the Army Corps] remains CBP’s preferred partner in executing border barrier projects. However, CBP has the engineering and construction expertise along with the contracting capacity to supplement the work of USACE.”
He said that Fisher’s bid was “the most competitive” in its selection process.
Since taking a seemingly catastrophic knock in 2018, the one constant has been the steady rise of Fisher and his company.
His rough-and-tumble playbook appears to have won the approval of an administration which fights its battles the same way.
Even with his hefty contracts, the future of the wall hangs on the results of the presidential election.
President Trump has not made the wall a pivotal campaign issue, especially in its closing weeks, but appears to remain committed to it, and boasts about its progress on his campaign site.
Biden has promised to stop all wall construction if he takes office — which would see Fisher’s hard-won construction ambitions crumble before much of it is even built.