Brian Kolfage, the air force veteran who fundraised tens of millions from MAGA-heads in the name of building Trump’s border wall, admitted Thursday to pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars that were donated to his bogus efforts. Kolfage established We Build the Wall in 2018 to help construct barriers along the United States’ southern border, a promise Donald Trump repeatedly made on the campaign trail and during his presidency. But, according to a 2020 indictment, Kolfage, Steve Bannon, and two other co-conspirators defrauded donors and siphoned hundreds of thousands from the more than $25 million they raised to their own pockets. Kolfage had previously denied the charges, accusing prosecutors of targeting him because he posed a “major threat to the globalist agenda to have mass migration into the U.S.” But on Thursday, he acknowledged stealing $350,000 from donors.
“I induced donors to opt to the new project in part through the misrepresentation that I would not profit from We Build the Wall or take a salary or compensation,” Kolfage said in a prepared statement. “I knowingly and willingly conspired to receive money from the donations.”
Kolfage, who pleaded guilty to tax and wire fraud charges, made the admission as part of a deal with prosecutors from the Southern District of New York to forfeit over $17.8 million and to pay more than $140,000 in back taxes. He also agreed to pay between $20,000 and $200,000 in fines and to serve 51 to 63 months in prison. That would allow him to avoid the potential 46 years in prison he could face if a judge doesn’t sign off on the agreement. His co-conspirator, Andrew Badolato, also pleaded guilty Thursday to a count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Another defendant, Timothy Shea, is still scheduled to go to trial next month.
Bannon, of course, was arrested on a boat in 2020, but escaped the charges when Trump pardoned him on his final day in office in 2021. “Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the conservative movement and is known for his political acumen,” the Trump White House said of the former top strategist to the president.
Trump’s vow to construct a “big, beautiful wall” along the entirety of the United States-Mexico border was a put-on from the get-go, more mnemonic device than policy proposal. But Kolfage’s border barrier was somehow even scammier: Beginning as a sketchy, but viral GoFundMe campaign in 2018, Kolfage registered We Build the Wall as a nonprofit the following year to raise money to build border wall segments. Its advisory board was a who’s who of anti-immigration zealots and Trumpworld hangers-on: Blackwater Founder Erik Prince, the brother of former Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; former Milwaukee Sheriff and cowboy hat enthusiast David Clarke; former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo; former Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling; and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was accused by the watchdog Common Cause of illegally using the organization’s email list to solicit donations for his failed 2020 Senate campaign and has, amazingly, continued to represent the group as recently as February of this year. (Kobach, who has not been charged, said the allegation was baseless and a “distraction.”)
The project raised questions from the beginning — where, exactly, would these donations go? Kolfage said Thursday that he found out after making the fund that he couldn’t just donate the money to the government specifically to build the wall — and it came under criminal investigation in Florida by August 2019 after “multiple complaints” about the organization. But that didn’t stop Kolfage and Bannon, who promoted the nonprofit up to the day before they were indicted, from raising more than $25 million.
What did the group have to show for all that money? A half-mile barrier in Sundland Park, New Mexico, that was visited by Donald Trump Jr., and a three-mile barrier in Mission, Texas, that began eroding just months after it was erected because it was built too close to the Rio Grande River. “When the river rises, it will likely attack those areas where the foundation is exposed, further weakening support of the fence and potentially causing portions…to fall into the Rio Grande,” Alex Mayer, a civil engineering professor at the University of Texas at El Paso, told ProPublica. Trump himself was peeved at the Texas project, tweeting in July 2020 that he “disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of a wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads.”
“It was only done to make me look bad,” Trump added.
By that point, Kolfage was already feeling pressure from investigators, whom he described in a 2020 social media post as “corrupt ass holes” who were “coming for anyone who supported Trump at a high level.”
“They want to shut us up and stop us from building more border wall,” he wrote.
He and Badolato are expected to be sentenced in September. Bannon is facing a charge of contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
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