TOPEKA — Federal authorities on Thursday announced the indictment of Steve Bannon, Brian Kolfage and two others for siphoning payments from a crowdsourced fund to privately build a border wall with Mexico.
Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who serves as general counsel for the nonprofit that manages the $25 million campaign, isn’t named in the indictment.
Bannon, Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea were arrested Thursday. Prosecutors accused them of lying to donors of We Build the Wall about not taking any personal compensation. They allegedly set up a shell company and used fake invoices to hide personal payments.
Prosecutors said Bannon, former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, received more than $1 million and Kolfage, an Air Force veteran, received $350,000.
“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,” said acting U.S. attorney Audrey Strauss. “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.”
Kolfage launched the fundraising effort in December 2018 in response to the refusal by Congress to pay for Trump’s border wall. Cash raised through the GoFundMe campaign was rolled over into a 501(c)(4) nonprofit the following month.
“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,” said Philip Bartlett, inspector-in-charge at the New York field office of the U.S. Postal Inspector Service.
Kobach was accused last year of illegally using the We Build the Wall’s donor list to solicit contributions to his campaign for U.S. Senate. Kobach, who lost to U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall in the August primary for the GOP nomination, said the accusation was baseless.
Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican from Wichita who dropped out of the U.S. Senate race in March, repeatedly criticized Kobach’s association with We Build the Wall through her campaign. The independent group clashed with the president, who refused to support the private effort, Wagle’s campaign said in an October memo.
In July, Pro Publica and the Texas Tribune published their findings from an investigation into the stability of a small stretch of wall financed by the private group on the banks of the Rio Grande. The three-mile fence is in danger of falling into the river.
“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” Trump said on Twitter. “It was only done to make me look bad, and perhsps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles.”
In a conversation last month for the Kansas Reflector podcast, Kobach touted his work as general counsel for We Build the Wall, saying the privately financed effort is “something that’s never been done before in American history.”
— Kansas Reflector (@KansasReflector) August 20, 2020
Kobach said Fisher Industries wanted to build the three-mile stretch of wall as a prototype to show it could be built along the river. The Border Patrol was building about a mile back from the river, Kobach said.
“They were trying to demonstrate to the Border Patrol, ‘hey, here’s a way you could do it in the future,’ ” Kobach said. “And they asked us for a small percentage to help raise the money to do it.”
In Leavenworth, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican, said in an interview that border security was an issue of national interest. Planning, financing and implementation of U.S. border strategy is the obligation of the federal government rather than privately funded individuals, he said.
“We need to make certain we do the things that allow people who are coming here legally to immigrate to the United States and prevent those that are coming here illegally from crossing our borders,” Moran said. “That’s the federal government’s responsibility. That’s Washington, D.C. I put the focus not on private activity, but on a national plan to solve the issues related to illegal entry into the United States.”