A behind-the-scenes power struggle over control of the Minuteman Project spilled into an Orange County courtroom Monday with ousted co-founder Jim Gilchrist asking a judge to give him back control of the citizen border patrol group.
Superior Court Judge Randell L. Wilkinson said he would issue a ruling within a few days.
Gilchrist, 58, a national figure in the fight against illegal immigration, was removed as president of the Minuteman Project this month by its board of directors, which accused him of abusing his power and leaving more than $400,000 of the organization’s money unaccounted for.
Gilchrist, a retired accountant from Aliso Viejo, denied the allegations but said the controversy “could very well bring an end to the entire Minuteman Project. There are groups around the country with the name, but we are the most well known and the most powerful.”
Gilchrist said in an interview that his opponents were motivated by “a greed for power and a false perception of an endless stream of money.”
Gilchrist said all money raised by his organization was accounted for and that his critics had leveled false allegations to gain control of the organization. In court papers, he accused his opponents of hacking into the Minuteman website, stealing money from Minuteman bank accounts, diverting other money to funds they control and stealing 20,000 pieces of letterhead and envelopes.
And Guy Mailly, Gilchrist’s attorney, argued in court that the three members on the seven-member board who ousted Gilchrist had no voting power and, if they had, they voted him out without a required quorum.
Deborah Courtney, the group’s recently appointed treasurer, said in an interview that a direct mail company helped raise $750,000 for the group in 2006, but that she believes the Minuteman campaign received only $311,000. Courtney said she and others had been unable to trace the rest of the money.
Courtney added that Gilchrist “is wonderful at wowing a crowd.... However, there is the Peter Principle, where you get to the point where it is over your head.”
Gilchrist’s opponents also allege in interviews that he used Minuteman funds to promote the book he co-wrote -- “Minutemen: The Battle to Secure America’s Borders” -- but kept the royalties.
They also said he should not have used $13,000 in Minuteman funds to defend himself in court against their allegations. He said the group must pay to defend itself against “rogues.”
The Minuteman Project gained widespread media attention in 2005 when its members patrolled the Mexico-Arizona border using cars, trucks, private planes and night-vision goggles. The effort drew criticism from President Bush, who called participants “vigilantes.”
Later that year, Gilchrist, a former military man, made an unsuccessful run for a House seat on the American Independent Party ticket.
Today, about 200 loosely affiliated Minuteman organizations operate across the country, with members lobbying local and federal officials to enforce immigration laws and watching the border to spot immigrant crossings for federal agents.
Robert Vasquez, a former county commissioner in Idaho who sued companies that hired illegal workers, said top conservative Minuteman leaders turned against Gilchrist, including Barbara Coe. She heads the California Coalition for Immigration Reform and co-wrote Proposition 187, the ballot measure that sought to deny undocumented immigrants certain public benefits.
“It is absolutely traumatic,” said Coe, of Huntington Beach. “I had total loyalty to him, and I reassured Jim many times. I pleaded with him, I begged him to [work] with us who were trying to resolve the problems with the Minuteman Project.”
Some of Gilchrist’s opponents recently filed a complaint against their former leader with the Internal Revenue Service, alleging that he did not obtain nonprofit status for the group. They say he improperly received a 40% discount nonprofit postal rate by using another organization’s nonprofit status.
Gilchrist said a direct mail group was responsible for securing the Minuteman’s nonprofit status and, if they hadn’t, it wasn’t a crime on his part.
Gilchrist said he filed a complaint with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, alleging that two board members should not have taken more than $6,000 in Minuteman funds.
In early February, board members voted to replace Gilchrist with Marvin Stewart, a Southland minister.
Stewart said Gilchrist’s charisma “is what got me on the team. It attracted people across the nation to come aboard.
“But when we talk about the rule of law as an organization fighting illegal immigration, we too as an organization must be in compliance with the rule of law,” he said. “When we allow these things to occur with any organization, we send a message to the public.”