Andrew Badolato and Brian Kolfage, two principals in We Build The Wall, an alleged 501(c)(4) nonprofit established to build a wall along the southern U.S. border, pled guilty to their roles in defrauding donors to the fundraising campaign. The pleas were entered before U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres in the Southern District of New York.
The scheme started in December 2018 as a GoFundMe campaign with a $1 billion goal. By January 2019, Kolfage, a U.S. Air Force veteran who had been disabled during combat, had established a nonprofit called We Build The Wall under the impression that doing so would aid in fundraising efforts. (https://www.thenonprofittimes.com/npt_articles/disabled-vet-launches-border-wall-nonprofit/)
At the time of the change, the GoFundMe campaign’s 300,000 donors were required to opt in to the new nonprofit. Figures regarding how many actually did so are not available. In time, the combined efforts raised $25 million, according to a statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.
As part of the nonprofit’s promise, Kolfage was not supposed to draw any compensation for his role. All money raised was to go to wall construction. But according to a statement accompanying the plea announcements, “Kolfage, Badolato, and others received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donor funds from We Build the Wall, which they each used in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations.
For example, Kolfage covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds that donors had given to We Build the Wall. To conceal the payments to Kolfage from We Build the Wall, Kolfage, Badolato, and others devised a scheme to route those payments from We Build the Wall to Kolfage indirectly. They did so by using fake invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to ensure, as Kolfage noted in a text message to Badolato, that his pay arrangement remained ‘completely confidential’ and kept on a ‘need to know’ basis.”
Both Badolato and Kolfage pled guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud. Kolfage entered an additional guilty plea to tax and wire fraud charges that had been filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Florida. The wire fraud charges carry a maximum of 20 years in prison. Badolato and Kolfage are scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 6.
Steve Bannon, the former Trump Administration aide, and Timothy Shea, who established the nonprofit as well as a shell company used to launder payments to Kolfage, had been charged with similar offenses. Initially, all four men had entered not guilty pleases. Bannon was pardoned during President Donald J. Trump’s last days in office. Shea’s case is scheduled to go to trial in May.
When the four men were initially charged in August 2020, a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice Southern District of New York, alleged they and others “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors, including donors in the Southern District of New York, in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign ultimately known as ‘We Build The Wall’ that raised more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States. In particular, to induce donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would ‘not take a penny in salary or compensation’ and that ‘100% of the funds raised . . . will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose’ because, as Bannon publicly stated, ‘we’re a volunteer organization.”
A search on GuideStar revealed no evidence of a nonprofit named We Build The Wall. A website link, https://webuildthewall.us/, now leads to a dead page filled with code. In mid-2020, the website had featured testimonials from former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; Donald Trump Jr.; Kimberly Guilfoyle, a member of the Trump Victory Committee’s finance committee and Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend; Brandon Judd, President of the National Border Security Council; and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas.)