Members allege the American GI Forum has been shilling for Boeing, Big Oil, and AT&T
Published: September 14, 2011
The story of Dr. Hector P. Garcia is the stuff of legends. The World War II veteran returned from Europe in 1946 to witness injustice all around him. In Corpus Christi, he and his fellow Mexican-American veterans faced segregation from their peers. They saw whites-only funeral homes refusing to bury Latino war heroes, poll taxes that kept poor minorities from voting, and an infamously exploitive Bracero Program in full swing. Yet through Garcia’s work, a new advocacy group sprang into being, sweeping the nation in its push for equal benefits for Mexican-American vets, desegregation, and civil rights.
Now just over half a century later, a string of lawsuits and bitter infighting are roiling the ranks of the legendary GI Forum. Buried beneath mounds of court filings, alleging poor management and shoddy accounting, is a deep concern that Forum leaders have opted to trade Garcia’s legacy for corporate donations from groups like AT&T, Boeing, and fossil fuel energy companies represented by the American Petroleum Institute.
Peter Vallecillo, a former paralegal with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid and current vice-chair of the state Tejano Democrats, says he first felt uneasy about the Forum’s corporate connections when he was asked to investigate a $100,000 AT&T grant. The money had been funneled through the organization’s Vet-Hire program, a nonprofit charity he was overseeing that provides education and jobs programs for soldiers returning from war, to something called the Hispanic Technology and Telecommunications Partnership. According to Vallecillo, Forum members knew the money had come in, but had no idea what it was funding.
That investigation, Vallecillo said, “opened up a can of worms.” Vallecillo kept getting the runaround, he claimed, and couldn’t get complete financial statements. When he approached the man who controlled the account for the Telecommunications Partnership, an influential D.C. lobbyist named Manuel Mirabal, with questions from the GI Forum, he was referred to Mirabal’s attorney.
Confused and irritated, Vallecillo kept digging. Unanswered questions about the AT&T grant prompted him to take a hard look at the Forum’s corporate sponsors back to 2007. What he came up with troubled him and others within the organization.
“I quickly realized, ‘Shit, this is gonna make me pariah,’” he said. “I’m sure for a lot of those guys, I’m a pariah now because all of this wound up in court.”
Through emails and other internal records, Vallecillo found the national commander at the time, longtime member Antonio Morales, had been in talks with influential Impact Texas lobbyist Richard Stone, whose client roster included giants like the American Petroleum Institute. Organization leaders later told him that in 2008 API donated money to the Forum twice, some $25,000 to help pay for the organization’s mid-year conference in Corpus Christi and another $25,000 to help sponsor the national conference later that year. (Forum leadership claims only $25,000 was received.) It was at this time that the Forum leadership began to speak out for the oil and gas industry.
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