President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and three others were arrested and are charged with fraud over a crowdfunded wall along the US-Mexico border. The “We Build the Wall” campaign collected over $25 million to construct the border wall proposed by President Donald Trump. But prosecutors claim that Bannon, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, and their associates Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars toward personal expenses.
The recently unsealed case alleges that Bannon and others broke repeated promises to put “100 percent” of donations toward the wall. The group secretly arranged private payments through a nonprofit, giving Kolfage $100,000 within months of starting fundraising. While claiming the funds went toward social media expenses, they allegedly diverted $350,000 to Kolfage — money Kolfage allegedly used to buy a boat (apparently named “Warfighter”), a luxury SUV, and cosmetic surgery.
The nonprofit apparently received $1 million in total, and the other defendants spent money on personal hotels, travel, and paying down credit card debt. Journalist Joshua Benton notes that the nonprofit’s description matches Citizens of the American Republic, a Bannon-founded organization that promotes “economic nationalism and American sovereignty.” The scheme allegedly stopped in October after the group learned of a criminal investigation.
“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,” said US attorney Audrey Strauss. Bannon and the others are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
We Build the Wall was a phenomenally successful online fundraising effort, but it’s been mired in legal and practical problems following its start in 2018. Florida investigators opened a different criminal probe last August, possibly related to a different incident where board member Kris Kobach reportedly used a We Build the Wall email list for fundraising. The nonprofit allegedly failed to obtain legal permits for its privately constructed wall segments, and it contributed money toward a 3-mile fence that began showing signs of erosion within months, leading Trump to say the project was “only done to make me look bad.” Kobach previously claimed to have gotten Trump’s “blessing” for We Build the Wall.
Badolato has worked with Bannon for years, at one point sharing an address with the former adviser. Among other projects, they invested in a Florida nasal spray company called SinoFresh; the company’s founder later accused them of manipulating the company’s finances and destroying it in a legal battle.