President Trump's campaign promise that to "build a wall" between the United States and Mexico, with the latter covering the costs entirely, seems like a vague distant memory at this point. Yes there's been some (minimal) construction on the southern border, but what was once the president's tentpole issue has largely receded into the background, supplanted in part by impeachments and pandemics and debates over mental acuity. Still, the tantalizing promise of The Wall was enough to convince donors to fork over $25 million in crowdfunded cash to a decidedly sketchy group un-creatively dubbed "We Build the Wall" — a GoFundMe campaign-turned-nonprofit that promised to launch its own construction effort to augment the president's xenophobic McGuffin.
On Thursday, however, federal officials arrested the four leaders of We Build the Wall, alleging that the group had systematically defrauded its hundreds of thousands of donors by shuttling money from the group through a network of shell companies and nonprofits, despite the founder's pledge that he would "not take a penny in salary or compensation" from the effort.
The four men — Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato, Timothy Shea, and former top White House official and Trump confidant Steve Bannon — have all been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, announced Thursday. Each count carries a maximum of 20 years in prison.
"As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction," Strauss explained in a press release. "While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle."
According to the indictment, Bannon, Shea, and Badolato used their grifted income to pay for things like hotels and travel, in addition to paying off their credit card debt. What's more, upon learning last year that We Build the Wall was possibly being investigated for fraud, the indictment claims the group hastily began working to cover their tracks, switching to encrypted messaging services and removing mention of Kolfage's pledge not to receive any funds from the organization's website.
Last year We Build the Wall ran into additional legal trouble, with United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission officials alleging the group had constructed part of their wall that blocked access to a nearby dam "without authority."
In the days before Thursday's indictment, Kolfage had flooded his Twitter account with diatribes against GoFundMe, after the crowdfunding platform had removed his "Black Lives Matter is a hate group" campaign.
Trump, meanwhile, has lashed out against We Build The Wall, claiming this past July that "it was only done to make me look bad, and perhsps [sic] it now doesn’t even work."
However, longtime Trump ally and staunch supporter Kris Kobach — who happens to serve as We Build the Wall's general counsel — said in an interview in early 2019 that he'd discussed the group with the president, who, he claims, told him "the project has my blessing, and you can tell the media that."
In any case, Bannon, the former White House chief strategist and Trump campaign chief executive, now joins the illustrious group of the president's inner circle who have since gone on to be charged with federal crimes. You're in great company, Steve!