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August 07, 2019 News » Cover Story

Smooth-talking Texan leaves nonprofit workers, officials scratching their heads 

Tiny homes and tall tales?

click to enlarge An early conceptual plan for Sand Creek Village, provided by Basel. - COURTESY VILLAGE AT SAND CREEK
  • Courtesy Village at Sand Creek
  • An early conceptual plan for Sand Creek Village, provided by Basel.

On an unusually mild day in early February, a Texan named Joe Basel met with a group of city leaders and nonprofit workers at Poor Richard’s Restaurant in Colorado Springs.

Basel, a bearded and casually dressed 30-something, presented a shiny solution to the growing problem of homelessness: A tiny home village development that could take hundreds of chronically homeless people off the streets — providing wraparound health services, the ability to earn a dignified income, and most of all, a sense of community that supports those struggling with long-term addiction and mental illness.

“The whole point is we’re trying to settle their soul and help them orient to the world again, and get clean,” Basel said during that meeting, “and produce value so that they can get a little currency to pay some expenses and get healthy.”

Basel was referring to Community First! Village, a widely praised permanent supportive housing development run by nonprofit Mobile Loaves & Fishes in Austin, Texas.

While Basel used “we” more than 90 times while discussing his relationship with Community First!, he had actually never worked for, advised or even formally volunteered for the organization, according to Amber Fogarty, president and “chief goodness officer” for Mobile Loaves & Fishes. (His farm may have formerly sold bacon to the development, Fogarty says, but that’s unconfirmed.)

In fact, she says, it wasn’t until early May that Basel attended the nonprofit’s Symposium for Goodness’ Sake, which helps advocates learn how to replicate the Austin village. He formally volunteered for just over six hours in April and May.

So why does Basel’s use of the word “we” at a meeting in February matter? After all, he didn’t lie or claim to be a part of Community First!, and was quick to clarify with an Independent reporter that he wasn’t formally affiliated with the village in any way.

click to enlarge An aerial view of Community First! Village in Austin, Texas. - PHOTO COURTESY MOBILE LOAVES & FISHES
  • Photo courtesy Mobile Loaves & Fishes
  • An aerial view of Community First! Village in Austin, Texas.

Since that meeting, Basel has worked with four other partners in Colorado Springs, including developer and former City Councilor Tim Leigh, on a vision for a 200-unit tiny home village next to Sand Creek, near the Colorado Springs Airport. They’ve completed some pre-development work, met with community leaders and elected officials, and, according to Basel, plan to submit an application to the city within “weeks, not months, ideally.”

The project has generated verbal support from elected officials, philanthropists and business leaders (but according to Basel, the development partners have not yet accepted donations or formal pledges, and have committed to funding the project themselves, if need be). For Colorado Springs, where advocates often find opposition to government-funded low-income and permanent supportive housing, the privately funded project has so far generated comparatively less concern.

Some people, including Leigh and Councilor Jill Gaebler, have said Basel’s efforts in the community to push forward a new solution to homelessness are helping create meaningful change.

Others worry about inconsistencies in some of his statements. He’s made influential friends and bitter enemies (including the director of a Durango nonprofit) along his journey from Austin to Colorado Springs, leaving a trail of confusion in his wake.

The story starts at the Texas Capitol, where Basel led a nonprofit group that secretly videotaped state legislators.

Beginning in 2010, Basel’s nonprofit, the American Phoenix Foundation, solicited contributions from deep-pocketed donors to accomplish its stated mission: “To search for, recruit, educate and facilitate citizen journalists working in the public interest.”

In actuality, the group ended up planting operatives at the state Capitol to secretly videotape politicians in hopes of catching them engaging in unscrupulous practices. They amassed more than 800 hours of video in 2015, but little has been released — though the footage was provided to right-leaning media outlet Breitbart News, which declined to publish it, the Texas Tribune reported at the time.

(It wasn’t the first time Basel had made a controversial political move — he’d been arrested in 2010 with conservative activist James O’Keefe for attempting to enter U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu’s New Orleans office under false pretenses. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor.)

Unsurprisingly, Basel and his colleagues made some enemies at the state Capitol. They soon found themselves entrenched in a lawsuit over their financial records and use of donor funds.

The suit was filed in Travis County District Court by Anatole Barnstone on behalf of Steve Bresnen, an attorney and lobbyist who demanded the American Phoenix Foundation turn over its financial records, after Basel and Benjamin Wetmore, the foundation’s former general counsel, wouldn’t explain who was paying them to take undercover video.

The court appointed a receiver, Dan Shelley, in 2017 to take over the financial records of the foundation (which lost tax-exempt status around that time) and attempt to discern what the money had been used for. What he found was troubling.

After obtaining the foundation’s bank records, Shelley found Basel and Wetmore had “paid considerable sums of the Foundation’s money (at least $670,000) in a relatively brief period of time to multiple entities controlled by them and to themselves personally,” he wrote in a 2018 report to Judge Lora Livingston.

Those transactions included $82,000 in “reimbursements” paid from the foundation to Basel’s personal account; $29,000 in “reimbursements” to Wetmore (above his $162,500 in salary and bonuses); at least $4,200 to C3 Strategies LLC (for which Basel was a managing partner and Wetmore the general counsel); $670,000 to the Texas Demography Project, an entity for which Wetmore served as general counsel; and $30,000 to the Golden Liberty Foundation, for which Wetmore was a board member.

“I have not been able to ascertain the purposes of these transfers, nor whether those transfers were made in fraud upon the rights of third-party creditors or of the Foundation itself,” Shelley wrote. “The Court is already familiar with Mr. Basel’s continued obstruction of the release of the Foundation’s financial records, despite a year-old un-appealed judgment that those records be released.”

Basel denies any wrongdoing and accuses Bresnen, along with Stephen Fenoglio (Shelley’s attorney and a friend of Bresnen’s) of trying to uncover the identities of his donors for political purposes. He claims the attorneys are attempting to get back at the foundation because “I put some sexual abusers in jail that were friends of theirs.”

When asked to provide examples or documentation of legislators the group’s work put in jail, Basel points to Carlos Uresti, a former Texas state senator who is serving time in federal prison for felonies including money laundering and fraud.

Asked to elaborate on the role of the American Phoenix Foundation in that conviction, Basel says the group’s impact was indirect. 

“Joe Basel was not testifying in court. Joe Basel’s team released a video of him being a sexual predator on Capitol Hill, and that made the key witness decide to testify,” he says, referring to himself in third-person.

According to Basel, Uresti’s wife testified in the case after the group’s footage showed him engaging in sexual infidelity with female staffers. Basel also claims that the American Phoenix Foundation “launched the #MeToo movement in Texas.”

A compilation of such footage of Uresti is indeed posted on an anonymous YouTube account that appears to be linked to the American Phoenix Foundation. The account contains around 30 short videos.

Whether the foundation’s work actually led to convictions of lawmakers is difficult to confirm. 

But it is well-known that Tarana Burke founded the #MeToo movement, and that it went viral in 2017 after actress Alissa Milano encouraged women to use the hashtag.

Bresnen, by the way, is fine with Basel’s accusation that he wanted to know the donors’ identities when he first filed the suit.

“I make no bones about it, that I was trying to find out who the donors were,” he says. 

Subpoenaed bank records show some of the donations were made through “pass-through” foundations, Bresnen says, including the National Christian Foundation South Florida, which made two contributions to the American Phoenix Foundation totaling nearly $1 million.

The nature of those financial transactions conceals the identity of the donor, Bresnen says. But the attorneys now have information on most of the donors, including some who told the Houston Chronicle they were disappointed their donations went to the undercover video effort.

Ultimately, the case “turned out to be much more than that,” Bresnen says. He is still pushing for the foundation to account for the purposes of the withdrawals and transactions connected to Basel and Wetmore.

The case is currently in an Austin appeals court, says Fenoglio, Shelley’s attorney, who believes “it could be another six months, nine months, before the court of appeals issues a decision.”

In a 2016 deposition conducted by Fenoglio, Basel invoked his Fifth Amendment rights more than 80 times rather than answer questions regarding what kind of books and records the foundation kept. (Basel was listed as the official records custodian.)

“Sorry you had to read that,” Basel says when asked about that deposition. “I’ve never been sued before, so... But so a lot of the questions, specifics [like] ‘What was on this check number?’ … I’m under oath so I’m not going to guess. They had the records in front of them, so they were better to answer that than me.”

“They have all the records that I have,” Basel says, when asked if he could account for the unexplained transactions. “I’ve turned over everything.”

It’s important to note that Basel does not face criminal charges. 

He has, though, seen other setbacks: A recent judgment in another civil suit tied to the Texas Demography Project, a political canvassing effort Basel and Wetmore were involved with, resulted in Basel’s Natural Champion Farm being listed for foreclosure, according to official court documents provided by Bresnen. Records also show that a restraining order was filed on behalf of Hannah Basel (Joe Basel’s wife) preventing that foreclosure, and the farm was instead sold by the Basels in June.

Basel’s farm is significant to this story because he says his love of agriculture is what first got him interested in tiny homes, housing and homeless advocacy — an apparent about-face from his previous work in political consulting and nonprofits that eventually brought him to Colorado Springs and later, Durango.

“I think [Natural Champion Farm] started selling bacon to [Community First!] probably three years ago, and so we’ve been supporting them since then,” Basel says. (Community First! could not immediately confirm the business relationship.)

To familiarize himself with the project, Basel “read [the founder’s] book, I’ve read the research, went through their symposium,” he says. “... The way my mind works is I quickly see the breakthrough of what they’re doing.”

And his enthusiasm about tiny home villages for the homeless is clearly contagious — Basel has found strong support with developers and officials in Colorado Springs, despite his apparent lack of documented experience in the realm of homelessness prevention and affordable housing. (He would not provide references for those he’s met with in other cities, and says his skill is in providing a “vision” for projects rather than orchestrating the nuts and bolts of a development plan.)

When Basel visited in February (he stayed with Eli Bremer, former Olympic athlete and former chair of the El Paso County Republican party), he met with Mayor John Suthers, Homelessness Prevention Response Coordinator Andrew Phelps and members of City Council. 

click to enlarge Village founder Alan Graham - PHOTO COURTESY MOBILE LOAVES & FISHES
  • Photo courtesy Mobile Loaves & Fishes
  • Village founder Alan Graham

In May, Basel met with Phelps, Councilors Richard Skorman and Jill Gaebler, Springs Rescue Mission President and CEO Larry Yonker, and others for a tour of Community First!, and a meeting with its founder, Alan Graham, in Austin.

“He seems to know a lot about this issue,” Gaebler says of Basel. “... He just is one of those people who brings people together, and I respect those kinds of people. He’s a visionary.”

The current development plan for the Sand Creek village includes 200 tiny units and includes space for “missionals” — volunteers who live in the community. 

There’s been some concern that the location won’t work, because it’s in the airport overlay zone, and may need special approvals from the Airport Advisory Commission, Planning Commission and City Council.

Basel is confident, though, that he can sell the city on the project.

“I think the majority of the residents of Colorado Springs are yearning for exactly this,” he says.

While Basel says he’s pitching the concept of Community First! to “communities around the country,” Mobile Loaves & Fishes, the nonprofit that runs the original Austin village, has its own, separate process for helping other cities replicate the project.

That process involves attending a symposium held several times a year, open to anyone interested, President Amber Fogarty explains. From there, the nonprofit assesses whether an organization’s plans are feasible, and if so, it can provide more assistance through the development process.

“We want people to understand just how complex this is,” Fogarty says, explaining that such a project involves working with a population in need of comprehensive wraparound services. “A lot of times what we see when people come to our symposium is an oversimplification of what it is that we’re doing.”

Though he’s attended the symposium himself, Basel isn’t using the official replication process when he pitches Community First! in other cities. Fogarty worries that he may be oversimplifying the concept.

It’s unclear how many cities Basel has actually visited, because he refuses to reveal their names on the grounds that the Independent has talked with Donna Mae Baukat — the executive director of a nonprofit in Durango that had a falling out with Basel in June.

Initially, Basel seems to have generated excitement and praise in Durango, similar to his reception in Colorado Springs.

He connected with Baukat, the president and executive director of Community Compassion Outreach, around April. Baukat’s nonprofit had already been planning to build a tiny home village, and in Basel’s new consulting firm, Paradigm Partners, the board saw a potential partner that could help them get the project off the ground.

In early conversations with the nonprofit, Basel suggested it should first raise $100,000 for predevelopment costs. With that money, he said, his firm should be able to get the project to the point that it was ready to submit a permit to the city or county. A for-profit partnership between CCO and Paradigm Partners would see the project through.

But as the discussions continued into mid-July, a nonprofit consultant doing pro bono work for CCO uncovered some surprising information about Basel’s background. By searching Basel’s name online, Jeff Susor found articles about Basel’s 2010 arrest, undercover videotaping and the American Phoenix Foundation lawsuit.

While Susor is hesitant to accuse Basel of any previous wrongdoing or bad intentions, a conversation with Basel about the findings failed to allay his fears.

“It feels like there’s a bunch of unanswered questions,” he says.

Baukat spoke to Bresnen and Fenoglio, and decided to terminate the proposed consulting relationship with Basel with a formal letter.

Baukat contacted Andrew Phelps, the homelessness prevention and response coordinator in Colorado Springs, about Basel. Phelps says he doesn’t want to get involved with “possible personality conflicts.”

Regardless of what happened in Durango, Phelps says the city is interested in the idea of a tiny home village as a solution to homelessness.

“I’m not sure about the specifics of the accusations and furthermore, whether or not the accusations are even true,” he says in regard to Basel. 

“I don’t believe that our community is in a place where we can really just dismiss at face value any type of housing,” he adds.

Basel obviously has a much different take on what happened in Durango than does Baukat. He says she’s going with the lobbyists’ narrative of his past with the American Phoenix Foundation.

Basel also says there was a disagreement over funding — he says that the nonprofit expected him to raise the first $100,000 on his own.

“[I said], ‘If you guys can’t cover those then it’s kind of silly to start this conversation,’ and that’s kind of where it broke down, where it basically became, I would have to go fundraise it as well,” he says. “Needless to say, every other city wants this too, so I can’t be personally funding, you know, a million homes. I wish I had that money, but I don’t.”

Basel says he has recently moved to Washington, where Paradigm Partners will consult cities on topics related to sex trafficking, the opioid crisis, homelessness and affordable housing. While there is no one on the firm’s payroll now, he says, he expects to have “500-plus employees in two years at Paradigm Partners.” 

It appears Basel’s connections in Colorado Springs don’t know much about his history, and even if they did, it’s unclear whether their perception of the proposed development would change.

“I’m sad that that’s the tack you’re taking,” Gaebler says when asked what she had heard about Basel’s background. “I get that that’s sensational and really interesting, but I guess from my perspective, I want to focus on helping our homeless community, and I don’t want to derail a project based on what you may or may not find out about one person. 

“But I haven’t heard anything, just so you know.”

Yonker, of Springs Rescue Mission, is less defensive about Basel, but also says he is unclear on Basel’s background and doesn’t know about an issue with his previous nonprofit’s financials. He recalls something about undercover videotaping, but not the specifics.

“I’m typically leery of people who have all the answers ... I’m just skeptical, let’s just say that,” Yonker says. “If [the tiny home village is] done well, I don’t think he’s the person that can run this.”

Yonker, though, is supportive of the concept of a tiny home village, which he says could be a better solution for some people experiencing homelessness than a shelter facility, or even an apartment project like Greenway Flats, the new 65-unit permanent supportive housing project brought to fruition through a joint effort between Springs Rescue Mission, Nor’wood Development and Ross Management.

“I never did a deep dive on Joe’s background,” says Tim Leigh, one of the partners on the Sand Creek tiny home village project. “I take everybody at face value.”

“I think we have a team that ... they bring skills to the table which will benefit this project and greatly improve the plight of people who are experiencing homelessness,” Leigh adds.

Skorman, who helped introduce Basel to Colorado Springs leaders, says he hadn’t looked into Basel’s background: “I was just thinking about what he was proposing and what he was bringing to the table.”

Basel does have a vocal detractor in Aimee Cox, the CEO of local nonprofit Community Health Partnership and former community development manager for the city. Cox, who says she was already skeptical about the tiny home project (she’s not sold on the concept), has spoken with Baukat and worries Basel is “making a mockery of our town.”

“We really need to vet these people who come from the outside and think they have some answer that we have not figured out ourselves,” Cox says. “We do have [housing] models in the community that we could scale if we could get some resources, but we always — the folks who are doing the work here — always seem to fall second to the shiny new thing.”

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