Winner of $400M border wall contract: 'a gung-ho, smart guy'
BISMARCK, ND – Tommy Fisher peered into a Fox News camera and talked up his North Dakota-based company's ability to build a border wall faster and cheaper than others could, with technology “so revolutionary, it's like comparing the iPhone to a pay phone.” Fisher Sand and Gravel, he said, was eager to help President Donald Trump deliver on a key campaign promise.
“Hopefully the president will see this,” Fisher said during the April appearance on “Fox & Friends First,” part of a blitz on conservative media over several months as the construction executive took a well-worn path to the president's ear. Fisher's company ultimately won a $400 million contract, though the contract is now being audited over concern it may not meet operational requirements.
That Fisher, 49, was able to land the contract came as no surprise in North Dakota, where people who know him describe a man with a get-it-done attitude, a knack for self-promotion and a strong belief in the company he took over from his father when he was just 25.
U.S. Rep. Kelly Armstrong, who grew up with Fisher, called him “a gung-ho, hardworking, smart guy.” Though Fisher long ago moved to Arizona — he runs the company from a distance — Armstrong said he remains well known in his hometown.
“Go sit in a coffee shop in Dickinson and try to find someone who doesn’t like Tommy,” Armstrong said. “He’s a great corporate citizen.”
Kurt Robinson, who worked in the company's IT department from 1996 to 2005, said he left to start his own business in part because he wasn't happy with leadership in Dickinson. He said the company would have tanked if not for Fisher, who was managing it from Arizona.
“Tommy is the driving force of the company and he is a very good businessman,” Robinson said.
Fisher, who said last month that he expected the audit to find nothing amiss, didn't respond to a request for an interview.
Fisher's father, Gene Fisher, founded the company in 1952. It has concrete, asphalt, drilling, mining and paving operations in 14 western states and sells construction equipment worldwide. Fisher has said the government-funded border project would be the company’s second-biggest, after a $450 million bridge and highway project in Nevada.
The company is involved in a legal dispute over a privately funded section of border wall it proposed building along the banks of the Rio Grande in Texas. The federal government is trying to stop the project, saying proper analysis hasn’t been conducted to ensure that the project wouldn’t affect water flow or change the U.S.-Mexico border.
According to information compiled by Good Jobs First, a policy resource center that promotes corporate and government accountability, Fisher Sand and Gravel has been fined 16 times by the Environmental Protection Agency since 2000 and has paid more than $430,000 in fines. The largest was $150,000 in 2013, when the EPA found the company failed to comply with dust mitigation regulations at facilities in Maricopa County, Arizona.
In 2009, as the company was bidding for a road project in Nevada, Fisher defended it over more than 1,400 emissions violations at an asphalt plant. He said the number was inflated because each day the complaint was unresolved counted as a violation, and added: “You can find good and bad on everybody,” the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
The company was ordered to pay nearly $1.7 million for tax violations in 2009 after Fisher’s brother, Micheal Fisher, pleaded guilty to nine counts of tax fraud and the company admitted responsibility for defrauding the federal government. Micheal Fisher, a vice president at the time who is no longer with the company, was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
Court documents said Micheal Fisher improperly had Fisher Sand and Gravel pay for construction expenses and furniture for his home and a recreational building, as well as utility bills, vacations, and personal legal expenses. The judge in the case, Daniel Hovland, wrote in a sentencing memorandum that Fisher family members, including Tommy Fisher, had ignored warnings from the IRS about improper handling of expenses reimbursed to family members.
Tommy Fisher set his sights on building a border wall well before his appearance on “Fox and Friends.” In a February 2018 newsletter, the company touted his multiple media appearances to promote its capability.
The initial plan was to construct the entire 700 miles of border wall in California, Arizona and New Mexico with no exceptions for mountainous terrain, for nearly $11 billion.
By that point, the company was doling out more money on the political circuit.
An analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics found the company’s lobbying jumped from $5,000 in 2017 to $75,000 in 2018. It spent $27,500 lobbying members of Congress and Homeland Security on the wall issue in the first three quarters of 2019.
In the 2018 election cycle, Fisher and his wife donated $10,800 to Republican Sen. Kevin Cramer, who championed the company's ability to build the wall and made Fisher his guest at Trump's 2018 State of the Union address.
“He loves Donald Trump, and he’s a builder like Donald Trump. Of course, he’s a supporter of the President’s immigration policy,” said Cramer, who said he didn't know Fisher until Trump began pushing for a border wall.
Fisher has also given $5,000 to Armstrong, the House member, during the current cycle. Armstrong recalled Fisher's generosity after Dickinson was hit by a tornado in 2009, when Fisher's company rebuilt a baseball field backstop right before an important tournament.
“He built a new backstop in less than 48 hours,” Armstrong said. “He never sent us a bill.”
Associated Press writer Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
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