Minuteman Founder Must Pay Former Close Ally He Smeared

Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the border-watching Minuteman Project, has never been shy about expressing his opinions, especially when it comes to his many critics. But now his pugnaciousness has cost him dearly in a long-running feud with a former Minuteman ally.

Last month, an Orange County, Calif., Superior Court judge issued a summary ruling in a series of small-claims suits, declaring that Gilchrist had indulged in "Big Lie" tactics by publicly smearing a woman named Deborah Courtney — a former key member of the board of directors of Gilchrist's organization — and ordered him to pay her $42,501.

It's only the latest comedown in the long and steady decline of Gilchrist's anti-immigrant outfit. In the seven years since the Minuteman Project (MMP) made a national media splash with vigilante border watches in Arizona and elsewhere, the border-watch movement has largely fallen on hard times – and no one symbolizes that fall better than Gilchrist.

The civil-lawsuit loss was only the latest chapter in the six-year soap opera that followed the eruption of an internal feud in the ranks of the Minuteman Project in late 2006, the immediate result of which was that the MMP board – including Courtney – fired Gilchrist and assumed control of the operation.

From there, the dispute degenerated into a blizzard of lawsuits, with Gilchrist first claiming he had become the sole member of the board of directors and accusing the board of attempting to hijack his organization. He eventually dropped that suit, but the board meanwhile countered with one of its own, accusing Gilchrist and his cohorts of fraud. That lawsuit worked its way through Orange County’s court system for nearly a year before the judge in the case dismissed it, at least partially at the plaintiffs’ behest, in May 2008.

Shortly after the dismissal, the board (this time with a new lawyer) filed a fresh version of the case; that one eventually went Gilchrist’s way, and he regained full control of the MMP in December 2009. The next month, the Orange County judge hearing the matter issued a permanent injunction barring the board members from bringing any further action in the matter. In April of 2010, a jury ordered the board members to pay Gilchrist back $4,000 it had withdrawn from a bank account.

That wasn't the end of it, though. Afterward, Gilchrist embarked on an online smear campaign against Courtney and her cohorts. After it had continued for a while, Courtney decided to put an end to it, and filed a series of defamation suits in small-claims court.

Gilchrist, the lawsuits pointed out, had described Deborah Courtney online as a criminal who had been "convicted by a jury of her peers" of committing specific federal offenses including "postal fraud," "federal bank fraud," "federal bank theft," "U.S. Postal fraud," "violations of federal Internet laws," "interstate document fraud" and, in one particularly detailed attack, of "violating one or all of the following Federal laws: Title 18, Sections 1030, 1708, 1341, and 1342, having to do with computer fraud and Internet abuse, engaging in a fraudulent scheme to divert monies, attempting to divert U.S. Mail, and mail tampering."

Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit sat in on the proceedings in Judge Julian Bailey's courtroom, and observed that both Gilchrist and Courtney represented themselves in the proceedings, though Gilchrist was accompanied by paralegal Brad Mailly, the brother of longtime Gilchrist attorney Guy Mailly.

Mickadeit described it like this: “Bailey went through the eight allegedly defamatory statements one by one. He asked Gilchrist why he'd made them. Gilchrist said that after the lawsuit, Courtney's ‘propaganda campaign’ against him had been ‘so overwhelming’ that ‘I had to do something. ... I had to post.’ In general, Bailey wanted Gilchrist to explain how he could characterize a civil finding under state law as a conviction for violations of federal criminal laws. Gilchrist replied that the removal of $4,000 from a bank account ‘seems to me like theft. ... My understanding is that what they did was probably criminal.’”

Bailey's ruling was scathing. "Mr. Gilchrist and Mr. Mailly incredibly asserted that the statements in question here were neither defamatory nor made with malice,” he said. “The court finds this to be an example of the Big Lie tactic that Mr. Gilchrist and Mr. Mailly believe to be an effective rhetorical device."