The Bermudez Triangle

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It's not just his dodgy past that makes people uneasy. There are considerable questions about what he's up to these days, as well, especially when it comes to the financial management of Inmigrantes.

Bermudez says he is not surprised by the criticism. He sees himself as a martyr for the cause.

"We have a saying in Spanish: He who wants to be a redeemer ends up on a cross. [This] is exactly what happened to Jesus Christ," he says. "He tried to be the savior of the world and he ended up crucified."

But the martyr has some questions to answer.

At an event in August, aimed at letting workers know what could happen to them under Arizona's new employer sanctions law, Inmigrantes has a table set up where people can fill out and file what's known as a G-28 form, which gives legal representation to immigrants. Filers are asked for a $10 donation, which goes to Inmigrantes, and the paperwork is filed by Bermudez's for-profit document-preparation business, Centro de Ayuda (The Help Center).

Bermudez is a tall and imposing figure, dressed head to toe in black. As he works the room, shaking hands and cracking jokes, it's easy to see why people trust him enough to pay to file this form with him. He's friendly, he remembers your name, he seems to care.

But he also makes money off the immigrants that join his organization. He calls it smart business, pointing out that he'd turn a profit whether he actively campaigned for reform or not.

His critics say it reeks of exploitation.

Luis Avila, a Spanish-language radio personality whose show "Dos en la Noticía" (Two in the News) broadcasts from the same station as Bermudez's, says there isn't a clear enough distinction between Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras and Bermudez's private position on the air. (Though he won't label himself an activist, Avila is one of the youngest, yet most vocal players in Arizona's pro-immigration scene. He previously worked at La Buena Onda 1190 AM, and is the founder of the youth-oriented talk show "El Break.)

"He uses the radio to ask people for money, and a lot of us in radio don't think that's a good thing to do. Before, he had a history of fishy behavior with money; everyone knows he has a background that is not good with financial organization. We have a saying in Spanish: 'Don't do good things that seem to be wrong,'" Avila says. "When you are listening to the radio show, you can't draw the line between Centro de Ayuda and Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras. So, even though this is paid by Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, it's a good tool to get people to go to his business — hence his making money off the same people who are donating money."

Part of the problem is that Bermudez is not shy about admitting that if immigration reform ever becomes federal law, he stands to make a huge profit. He files paperwork for immigrants seeking legal status and citizenship.

"If the reform comes through, I will generate all kinds of money," he says. "Obscene amounts of money, even though I am going to charge a reasonable rate."

No kidding. Hundreds of people show up at events like the one in August. Thousands more listen to his radio show. And each hears about the Centro, which is housed in the same building as Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras. Each immigrant that comes in contact with one organization is pushed to become part of the other. Each is encouraged to donate to the cause and to donate often, though where the money goes is murky.

For this story, New Times interviewed Bermudez, his associates, and his critics. Hundreds of pages of court documents pertaining to his felony arrest, a series of federal lawsuits filed against him by Community Legal Services and his role in the false plot to kill Arpaio were examined. The IRS had no documentation of Inmigrantes' financial records; Bermudez did make thousands of receipts, bank statements, and other financial documents available, but it's impossible to know what is legitimate.

Recently, the State Bar of Arizona issued a cease-and-desist order against Centro de Ayuda, the for-profit document-preparation business, claiming Bermudez is not licensed or qualified to provide immigration services, following a complaint by one of his clients. He denies the charges.

On the nonprofit side, Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras does not have 501(c)(3) status with the IRS. Though Bermudez incorporated under nonprofit guidelines with the Arizona Corporation Commission in November 2005 and has accepted more than $200,000 in donations (at least, that's what he's documented) for the group since May 2005, he has yet to complete the tax-exemption paperwork and file with the IRS.

Bermudez gave time for this story, even opening his central Phoenix home. But when asked about his relationship with the IRS, vis-à-vis Inmigrantes, Bermudez uncharacteristically loses his composure for a moment. It's disconcerting to watch a man usually so sure of himself grasp for words. But, with a politician's skill, he pulls it together.

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin