“Power struggle.” “Money grab.” “Circus.” Those are among the terms some former People’s Convoy participants and supporters used to describe the nearly three-month, 26-state cross-country trek by truckers and others to protest government mandates regarding COVID-19 and to speak out on other political issues.
More than $1.8 million was collected through the convoy’s fundraising platform, the American Foundation for Civil Liberties and Freedoms (AFCLF). What happened to the money that was supposedly collected over the four days preceding the official May 20 disbanding, which some participants and live streamers claim totaled around $15,000, remains a mystery.
After declaring victory on May 20 at a dirt-track speedway in Hagerstown, Maryland — sources say the dwindling convoy, down to 15 tractor-trailers and around 40 passenger vehicles and RVs in the final days from a peak of about 50 trucks and hundreds of supporters in their personal vehicles that initially left Adelanto, California, in February— the convoy imploded very publicly on social media once remaining organizers declared the “mission of freedom” was over.
“The People’s Convoy declares victory and announces its conclusion of the national convoy portion of this great movement,” wrote Kris Young, one of the administrators of the group’s various social media accounts. “Any convoy and protest activity from this time forward is done on an individual basis and is not representing The People’s Convoy.”
In the days prior to the convoy’s collapse, participants and supporters say they were asked to “pass the hat” and chip in cash to pay the Hagerstown Speedway for allowing them to camp there and use the site as a staging area to launch its slow rolls and loops around the Washington Beltway.
“There was a power struggle among some of the original organizers from the get-go to see who was going to lead this thing,” said one trucker who did not wish to be identified but was on the original call about organizing a convoy in the U.S. based on the intense media attention gained by defiant Canadian truckers and opponents to government mandates there during the Freedom Convoy.
Since the convoy was evicted from the speedway, organizers, supporters and rival trucking advocacy groups have taken to TikTok, YouTube and conservative social media channels to speculate about what happened to the money.
Some claim the money to pay the speedway went to one of the convoy’s organizers, Marcus Sommers.
However, Sommers denies that any funds were misappropriated by the trucker organizers of the People’s Convoy and says he and some of the other organizers didn’t make a dime.
“I’d love to share my story but I’ve got more patience than money, and that’ll never change,” Sommers told FreightWaves.
Others say the money raised for the speedway was the result of a callout to supporters from David “Santa” Riddell, who told backers that the convoy that was coming back to Hagerstown in mid-May had more “teeth and a backbone.”
Riddell is a self-proclaimed member of the right-wing extremist group the Proud Boys. Sources say the group took over the convoy at the end and founded a new effort, the 1776 Restoration Movement, that is currently camped out in Bunker Hill, West Virginia.
Riddell did not respond to FreightWaves’ request for comment.
People’s Convoy organizer Mike Landis disputes claims that he and other organizers raked in money from the cross-country protest. In fact, Landis sold a truck along the journey “to be able to do it as long as I did.”
“I don’t think people understand how much money it takes to move that many people across the country,” Landis said. “It’s a huge feat, even just getting the vehicles fueled in a timely manner every day. Those that think money was stolen, hold on to your socks once you see the books.”
“This was a money grab from the very beginning, and everyone who thought they could make a buck from this convoy did,” said one convoy participant, who didn’t want to be named for fear of retaliation.
While Sommers said he knows what happened, he declined to share the whole story at this point.
“Many truths have already been exposed but the people reject it,” Sommers said. “The people it matters to the most already know the truth. The American people need to stay focused on what the People’s Convoy started, and is in my opinion, the biggest win to achieve. That win was to be the catalyst for thousands of people to become actively involved at their state and local levels, many of whom have never been involved with anything political.”
He still believes momentum can be gained at the state level first, then elevated to the federal level.
“Once the people in the states rise up together and take their issues to the federal level, then and only then will there be power in D.C.,” Sommers said. “If the people only understood how much power they possess together as a community, county, city, state, then and only then, would we start to see a change in our great country.”
Lisa Plessinger, general manager of the speedway, said the racetrack didn’t receive the funds. She told FreightWaves she asked the group to leave on May 20 after reading the People’s Convoy’s post that the “mission was over.”
“Once the group said the convoy was over and the mission was completed, it was time to go home,” Plessinger said. “When the race is over, do you go home or do you sit in the parking lot for days? You go home.”
Some participants were upset because they were told by convoy organizers that they would be allowed to stay for up to seven days after the announcement that the national convoy portion was over.
After the convoy returned to the speedway for a second time, Plessinger said convoy organizers spoke to her about paying $2,000 per week for a maximum of two weeks. But no money exchanged hands, she said, because the convoy only stayed four days before disbanding.
“I don’t know what happened to the money, but I didn’t ask for any,” she told FreightWaves. “I was glad to get rid of them after having all of this drama. I heard rumors about being paid $15 grand, but that’s not true and I’m in the wrong business.”
The only expenses she asked the convoy organizers to pay were for trash collection and maintenance of port-a-potties.
“I got paid nothing,” Plessinger said. “I’ve never seen so much craziness in my life.”
The Maryland State Police were called to ensure the remaining convoy stragglers left. Some were upset, claiming the cash they chipped in to stay at the speedway was mismanaged. Some yelled “Squatters’ rights!” on a live feed and called for two of the remaining organizers to be arrested for fraud. Plessinger said the last participants were gone by 10 p.m. on May 20.
“I did call the police because when they ended the convoy, the person I was used to dealing with wasn’t there and another person tried to claim themselves as being the leader,” she said. “I wasn’t taking sides, but again, the convoy declared victory and it was time to go home.”
Demands to open the books
As soon as the money purportedly ran out to fund the People’s Convoy, the finger-pointing commenced among the remaining organizers and the AFCLF, and there were demands for an independent audit.
Both the organizers and the AFCLF are calling for their own independent audits to review the more than $1.8 million in donations received over three months.
Christopher Marston, founder of AFCLF, said the official audit is already underway but that he didn’t “have the name [of the firm] on the tip of his tongue.”
He directed FreightWaves to contact AFCLF Executive Director Pamela Milacek, who Marston said was in charge of hiring the accounting firm and will be handling the auditing process.
However, Milacek has active warrants out for her arrest for probation violations related to her pleading guilty through deferred adjudication in two cases involving fraud and exploitation of an elderly person. According to Matthew Hawkins, the criminal deputy district clerk for the Collin County District Clerk’s Office in Texas, Milacek is still on the lam.
She did not respond to FreightWaves’ request for comment.
In Texas, deferred adjudication is a form of judge-ordered probation that permits a defendant to accept responsibility for a crime without an actual conviction being placed on his or her record.
In one case, Milacek pleaded guilty to using a victim’s Social Security number, name and driver’s license number to apply for a PayPal credit card in Collin County. In a second instance, she pleaded guilty to exploiting an elderly person by illegally or improperly withdrawing funds amounting to nearly $15,000 without the victim’s consent, also in Collin County, in September 2020.
Marston says the AFCLF has not been actively involved in the People’s Convoy for over a month and that only the accounting team had been working with the trucker leaders for reimbursements — which he claims is the same process from the start.
AFCLF founder Marston claims convoy organizers raised funds along the 87-day cross-country trek but failed to report the cash and gift cards to his official fundraising group.
“That’s exactly why a nonprofit with financial controls is needed,” Marston told FreightWaves.
As of publication, no charges have been filed regarding any misuse of funds against the People’s Convoy organizers or the AFCLF.
One of the convoy’s original organizers, Brian Brase, who was axed from the group after he says he went home to see his family after a month on the road, is also calling for an independent audit.
In fact, Brase told FreightWaves he’s offered to pay for the audit “if that will clear my name.”
Brase denies that any donations collected haven’t been accounted for. He blames Marston’s group for not following through on promises to provide organizers with daily updates about its fundraising efforts and reimbursements for fuel and other expenses.
“What sold us on going with AFCLF was they were going to give us a bank card for the convoy expenses and it never showed up,” Brase said. “We had a lot of problems accessing the funds, and we never knew what the real dollar amount was.”
To keep track of the cash donations the convoy received along its journey through 26 states, Brase said the organizers had to get their own ledger and locked box.
He has come under fire for a live stream of him “passing the hat” to raise funds for volunteers who supported the convoy. He said the money was directly handed to the volunteers.
“The only time I was there that anything like that happened was some people were working really hard volunteering to help us that were living in their cars, hadn’t been able to shower and they were the people parking trucks and working security and in the kitchen and stuff like that,” Brase said. “And there was a bag that was passed around very publicly on live streamers’ feeds, and we said exactly who it was for and what it was for.”
Brase said that supporters along the routes would show up and directly hand money or Visa gift cards to drivers and other participants as a way to say thank you for “fighting for their freedoms.” He said there was no way to keep track of those donations.
“I had people walk up to me trying to give Visa gift cards to me and say, ‘This isn’t for the convoy. This is for you personally.’ I said, ‘No thank you, give it to all the drivers,’ and there’s a lot of people in the convoy who said the same thing.”
Brase and most of the organizers didn’t drive their tractor-trailers cross-country, but instead rode in a command bus, and later an RV, to plan route security and route planning, he said.
“So the bus basically had road maps and satellite images with laptops and police scanners running in case we ran into any trouble with counterprotesters,” Brase said.
He agrees the truth will come out and says it will become clear he had no role in how the funds were allocated.
“After I left and they, the People’s Convoy, posted that I was no longer affiliated with the group, I don’t know what went on,” Brase said. “I believe we were there for the right reasons in the beginning but that others wanted to profit off of us and turned this into a circus.”
(This is part 1 of a two-part series about the People’s Convoy trucker protest.)