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Feds say veteran Brian Kolfage secretly took donor money meant for building border wall

Triple amputee Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, founder of We Build the Wall Inc., speaks Thursday, May 30, 2019, in Sunland Park, N.M.

MARK LAMBIE/THE EL PASO TIMES

By CAITLIN M. KENNEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 20, 2020

WASHINGTON — Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage promised donors to his online crowdfunding campaign that their money would only go to construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. However, he cashed in on that trust by secretly taking more than $300,000 in donations to buy himself a luxury car, jewelry and pay down his debts, according to a Justice Department indictment unsealed Thursday.

Kolfage 38, of Miramar Beach, Fla., is a well-known Purple Heart recipient who survived a rocket attack in 2004 at Balad Air Base in Iraq that caused the amputation of his legs and right arm, according to his official website. His site also claims he is “the most severely wounded airman to survive any war.”

In December 2018, Kolfage started a GoFundMe campaign called “We the People Will Build the Wall” to raise money to donate to the federal government’s construction of the wall along the southwest border. He later founded a nonprofit organization called “We Build the Wall” to allow donors to transfer their GoFundMe donations for the new purpose of constructing a private border wall. The nonprofit has raised more than $25 million from those donors as well as new donors.

Kolfage was arrested Thursday for defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors by secretly getting paid with their contributions, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced in a statement. Also arrested was Stephen Bannon, the former White House chief strategist for President Donald Trump, who was an organizer and adviser of the online campaign and two others, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.

Each of the four men have been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge has a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison, according to the Justice Department.

On the We Build the Wall website, Kolfage states he is building a wall on the border because “I take the security of the American people very seriously.” The wall is to be constructed on private property to supplement Trump’s border wall plans, according to the site.

“It’s time we stand up and fight back against the globalist who continue to allow our nation to be overrun. I fought in war and lost three limbs defending this country, but now the war is at our doorstep,” the nonprofit’s website states on its donation page.

While some money was spent on wall construction, all four men took from the funds and spent it on themselves, according to the indictment. In order to encourage donations for the nonprofit, Bannon and Kolfage publicly stated Kolfage would not take any of the money for himself.

“Some of those donors wrote directly to Kolfage that they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical about online fundraising campaigns, but they were giving what they could because they trusted Kolfage would keep his word about how their donations would be spent,” the indictment states.

Instead of following through on their promises to donors regarding no compensation for Kolfage, the men “secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in the prepared statement.

The indictment states Kolfage, Bannon, and Badolato “reached a secret agreement” just days after establishing the We Build the Wall nonprofit so Kolfage could be “covertly” paid $100,000 upfront and then another $20,000 each month.

Kolfage was paid with We Build the Wall donor funds indirectly through Bannon’s own nonprofit organization as well as a shell company set up by Shea and bank accounts overseen by associates of Badolato, according to the indictment.

Kolfage received more than $350,000 in donor funds with help from the other three men and spent the money on personal expenses including home renovations, boat payments, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt, the indictment states.

Bannon received more than $1 million from We Build the Wall through his own nonprofit, which he used to pay Kolfage as well as cover personal expenses, the indictment states.

“As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth,” Philip Bartlett, inspector-in-charge of the New York field office of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, said in the prepared statement.

“This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist,” he added.

kenney.caitlin@stripes.com
Twitter: @caitlinmkenney
 

From left, Steve Bannon, Brandon Darby, Kris Boback and Brian Kolfage listen to former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo during a We Build the Wall meeting in Sahuarita, Arizona.
KELLY PRESNELL/ARIZONA DAILY STAR