A politically outspoken U.S. Air Force veteran, who suffered among the most catastrophic war wounds in American history, was arrested and charged Thursday with defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to a “We Build The Wall” GoFundMe campaign in order to fund a lavish lifestyle.
Brian Kolfage, 38, of Miramar Beach, Florida, launched the campaign in December 2018 and raised more than $25 million to fund a privately constructed wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. But according to a Justice Department announcement Thursday, very little of the wall’s expected construction was ever completed.
Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, was also arrested Thursday for his alleged role in the scheme, as were two others, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.
All four men were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering, and were expected to appear in court Thursday. If convicted, they face a maximum of 20 years in prison.
Kolfage was deployed to Iraq on Sept. 11, 2004, when a 107mm enemy rocket impacted three feet away from him. The explosion cost him both of his legs and his dominant right hand.
Medics performed hours of life-saving surgery before placing Kolfage on a flight to Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, where he arrived only 36 hours after being wounded, the fastest medevac from a war zone to the U.S. in history.
According to an indictment unsealed by federal prosecutors in New York, Kolfage secured an arrangement with Bannon to pay the Air Force vet an up-front sum of $100,000, followed by monthly installments of $20,000.
Kolfage allegedly used a significant portion of the $350,000 on a luxury SUV, jewelry, boat payments, home renovations, a golf cart, cosmetic surgery, tax payments and paying down credit card debt.
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Bannon, 66, is charged with keeping more than $1 million of the donated funds. He, Badolato and Shea allegedly spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on travel, hotels and personal credit card debts, according to the indictment.
The “We Build The Wall” campaign was initiated on Dec. 17, 2018, by Kolfage and Shea, a businessman, with an aim to raise $1 billion for President Donald Trump’s southern U.S. border wall. The money, the group said, would donated to the federal government for that purpose. Kolfage made repeated claims that he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and guaranteed that “100% of the funds raised … will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose.”
The fund-raising effort was an instant success, but it also drew widespread scrutiny. In response, GoFundMe officials informed Kolfage that the money would have to be transferred to a legitimate non-profit organization, or it would be returned to donors, according to the indictment. Kolfage then reached out to Bannon and Badolato, a venture capitalist, according to the indictment.
Within days of becoming involved, Bannon and Badalato “took significant control of of the fundraising campaign’s organization and day-to-day activities,” according to the indictment. In late December 2018, they established a Section 501(c) (4) organization to which the money could be transferred. They also formed We Build the Wall Inc. to continue fundraising activities related to wall construction, “with the modified purpose of funding the private construction of a wall along the southern border of the United States.”
“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,” Acting U.S. Attorney 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.”
The indictment alleges that the co-defendants concealed personal payments by routing them indirectly through the nonprofit and shell company, as well as through fraudulent invoices and erroneous vendor arrangements.
Then, instead of putting a halt to the project after being notified of a potential federal investigation into the campaign’s financials, the defendants allegedly doubled down on their fundraising efforts.
Kolfage reportedly “went so far as to send mass emails to his donors asking them to purchase coffee from his unrelated business, Military Grade Coffee, by telling donors the company was the only way he ‘keeps his family fed and a roof over their head.’”
“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,” Inspector-in-Charge Philip R. Bartlett said.
“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.”
President Trump publicly denounced the privately funded project last month, tweeting, “I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles.”
The president reiterated his stance Thursday, telling reporters he was unaware of the project’s nefarious practices and called it “a project being done for showboating reasons.”
Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before becoming a Hollywood producer, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room” that began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.
A day before the indictment was unsealed, Bannon interviewed Kolfage on his “War Room” podcast. Kolfage discussed a dispute with the fundraising platform and encouraged future donors to go straight to their website.
Bannon asked him whether he thought the wall could get built in order for Trump to fulfill his campaign promise.
“I think we stand in a pretty good spot, as long as he gets elected,” Kolfage responded.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
About J.D. Simkins
J.D. Simkins is a writer and editor for Military Times who was a Marine scout observer from 2004-2008. He ugly cried when the Washington Capitals won the 2018 Stanley Cup.