Federal prosecutors in New York charged Steven Bannon and three others on Thursday with conspiracy to commit fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. At the center of the charges is We Build the Wall, a crowdfunded organization that promised to do what Bannon said President Trump couldn’t: build a privately funded wall along America’s border with Mexico.
Bannon and his alleged co-conspirators built some short sections of wall in New Mexico and Texas, but prosecutors say they also skimmed millions from the donations. “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,” Acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss said 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.”
Prosecutors allege Bannon raked in $1 million and that one of his co-conspirators splashed out vast sums on high living, buying a golf cart, jewelry, and even plastic surgery. Kolfage alone allegedly skimmed $350,000 from the fund.
“Legally, this is a pedestrian accusation,” Jens David Ohlin, vice dean and professor of law at Cornell Law School, told Motherboard in an email. “It’s standard fraud in the nonprofit context: diverting for personal use funds donated to a charitable cause. What’s striking here is the context: ‘Build the Wall!’ is an important political catchphrase for Trump, and Bannon allegedly weaponized it for his own personal profit.”
In December 2018, Kolfage, an Air Force veteran and triple amputee, started a GoFundMe campaign with a $1 billion goal. He called it We the People Build the Wall. “Democrats are going to stall this project by every means possible and play political games to ensure President Trump doesn’t get his victory,” We Build the Wall’s website said. “They’d rather see President Trump fail than see America succeed. However, if we can fund a large portion of this wall, it will jumpstart things and will be less money Trump has to secure from our politicians.”
The campaign was one of the most successful in GoFundMe history and raised more than $20 million in a few weeks. As the funds came in, Kolfage repeatedly said he wouldn’t take a penny of the cash. “I take no salary whatsoever working on this project,” he said in a June 2019 tweet. “It’s completely volunteer and it’s how a nonprofit should be run.”
Early versions of We Build the Wall’s website promised that 100 percent of the donations would go to fund the wall and that, should the campaign fail, everyone would get their money back. As the months wore on, Kolfage constantly reminded his followers on social media that he wasn’t taking a dime from the project and asked for people to buy military-themed coffee from another one of his businesses. He also offered branding opportunities for corporate donors who wanted to put their name on the wall.
After the GoFundMe had raised more than $20 million, GoFundMe stepped in and told Kolfage he had to either register as a nonprofit entity or return the cash. Kolfage complied and, with the help of Steven Bannon and alleged co-conspirator Andrew Badolato, formed the 501(c)(4) We Build the Wall Inc.
According to the indictment, Bannon and Badolato took control of the organization, “including its finances, messaging, donor outreach, and general operations.”
The original GoFundMe promised to give the cash it raised directly to the U.S. government. In January 2019, Kolfage said he would instead use the money to build the wall privately. GoFundMe said Kolfage wasn’t allowed to change the terms after people had already donated and threatened to refund everyone’s money. Crucially, Bannon and company set up a new website that would allow people who’d donated to the GoFundMe to redirect their pledge money to We Build the Wall without going through the crowdfunding site.
At the same time, they posted by-laws on We Build the Wall’s website promising Kolfage would take no salary and “will personally not take a penny of compensation from these donations.”
The message that Kolfage wouldn’t take cash from the project was important to We Build the Wall’s image. In a text message Badolato sent to Bannon obtained by the feds, he said it was important to emphasize this point because it “removes all self-interested taint” and “gives Brian Kolfage sainthood.” The messaging worked, and by October 2019, We Build the Wall had raised more than $25 million for private construction of the border wall.
And build they did. In New Mexico, a small wall went up in the city of Sunland Park. The mayor tried to stop it but was rebuffed. The wall’s construction is stalled in Mission, Texas, where it could disrupt the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre waterfront preserve and state park. In Florida, the Department of Agriculture and Services had been investigating We Build the Wall over its nonprofit status since last year.
Kolfage has been chronicling all of this on a pretty audacious YouTube page that has a mix of drone-shot wall-building updates and anti-immigration political messages, often set to soaring rock music. Titles of videos include "Fake Migrants BUSTED” and “Illegal smugglers caught by we build the wall drone team."
Small portions of the wall went up, but the indictment alleged that more than a million dollars went into the pockets of Kolfage, Bannon, Badolato, and the fourth co-conspirator, Timothy Shea. After the formation of the nonprofit, as the group promised Kolfage wouldn’t take money, the four agreed in secret that Kolfage would get “100k upfront [and] then 20 [per] month,” according to the indictment.
To hide the paper trail, We Build the Wall sent money to a nonprofit controlled by Bannon who would then use the non-profit to pay Kolfage. In a text to Badolato published in the indictment, Bannon said there would be “no deals I don’t approve.” Text messages published in the indictment show Bannon directing Badolato to wire money from We Build the Wall to Bannon’s nonprofit in early February 2019. A week later, We Build the Wall allegedly sent Bannon’s nonprofit $250,000 and the nonprofit sent $100,000 to Kolfage. Koflage received the promised $20 a month, the following two months.
When Kolfage reached out to complain about declaring the pass-through payments on We Build the Wall’s tax forms, Badolato texted back: “Better than you or me lol.” To better conceal the payments, Badolato began paying Kolfage’s wife as a “media” contract worker, the indictment alleges.
Things got more complicated in April 2019. The four men allegedly began using shell companies, many of them controlled by Shea, to create false invoices that established a paper trail for money spent by We Build the Wall. In reality, much of the cash was going directly into Kolfage’s pocket, according to the indictment. The group continued to communicate through text messages about the scheme.
“‘600k comes in and [he] transfers 300k’ to Kolfage, they could ‘create companies that...hired [Kolfage and Shea] ...for a service’ like ‘consulting,’” the indictment said, quoting a text exchange.
According to federal prosecutors, We Build the Wall passed more than $1 million of its donations to Bannon’s nonprofit company. Kolfage received around $350,000 of that. He allegedly used the cash to buy a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, and plastic surgery, and he paid off credit cards and his personal tax debt. Bannon, Shea, and Badolato also skimmed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the organization.
Kolfage even showed off his boat at a July 4 boat parade in Destin, Florida.
According to the indictment, Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato, and Shea learned We Build the Wall was under investigation sometime in October in 2019. They began using encrypted text-messaging apps and attempted to cover up their actions. But the crimes were already committed.
“Devising a fraud scheme and then using electronic communication to perpetrate it is a classic wire fraud charge,” Barbara McQuade, former U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of Michigan, told Motherboard in an email. “The strength of wire fraud charges are that an electronic paper trail of evidence can be used to prove the case.”
The real question, for both McQuade and Ohlin, is what Steve Bannon — a man with intimate knowledge of the Trump White House — will do. “The big question in my mind is whether Bannon has information about other criminal conduct that he might trade in exchange for a deal with federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York,” Ohlin said.
“When a defendant is facing strong federal charges, his lawyer will naturally explore whether he can trade cooperation for leniency,” McQuade said. “Here, Bannon is in a position to know a great deal about the conduct of the Trump campaign because he was campaign manager in 2016. What makes this case different from most cases is that Trump may want to give Bannon the Roger Stone treatment: pardon him to prevent him from talking.”
GoFundMe did not immediately respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.