We Build the Wall

An organization called We Build the Wall builds a barrier on private land in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near El Paso in May 2019.

WASHINGTON — As President Donald Trump fumed in 2018 over the progress his government was making on a border wall, an Air Force veteran’s pro-wall GoFundMe page transformed into a separate project, funded by private donations and guided by former Trump advisers, including Steve Bannon.

Frustrated over the delays in Trump’s signature campaign promise, Brian Kolfage’s group, We Build the Wall, raised more than $20 million in weeks, largely on the promise of sidestepping the legal and political obstacles to building a border wall by using private funding to construct it on privately owned land.

But Thursday, about a month after Trump publicly criticized the private construction effort, federal prosecutors in New York unveiled an indictment accusing the fundraising campaign of ties to a scheme that “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors.”

Federal authorities in the Southern District of New York say Bannon, one of the architects of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign who later joined the group’s board, plotted with three other men: Kolfage, 38, from Miramar Beach, Florida; Andrew Badolato, 56, a financier from Sarasota, Florida; and Timothy Shea, 49, of Castle Rock, Colorado. Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state who is listed as We Build the Wall’s general counsel on the group’s website, was not named in the indictment.

Kolfage, who on television frequently advocated building a border wall but criticized the federal government’s methods, repeatedly said he had promised his donors that he would not take any of the group’s funds for his own benefit. Prosecutors said that was false: Kolfage secretly took more than $350,000 in donations for his own personal use, while Bannon, through an unnamed nonprofit organization, received more than $1 million from the group.

The criminal charges were the latest twist for a private group that had drawn the praise of some top Homeland Security and Border Patrol officials but prompted backlash over its connections to former Trump advisers and its construction methods.

While the portions of the wall constructed by the federal government are well within the U.S. side of the border on federally owned land or potentially splitting the farmlands of private landowners, portions of the privately run wall were built along the river bank of the Rio Grande. The potential environmental damage prompted legal challenges from environmental groups and the International Boundary and Water Commission, which manages the water relationship between Mexico and the United States.

Yet We Build the Wall drew praise from some administration officials, despite the group’s intent to privatize a function of government — border security — widely viewed as a federal responsibility. During a news conference in November in El Paso, Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and his top border officials welcomed the construction of the private project in New Mexico and Texas and said the barriers had proved to be effective. The briefing was highlighted on the Twitter page of Kolfage, who once ran a right-wing website that was eventually removed by Facebook.

“The government should be doing it, but it is not getting done. And we’re not trying to build the entire Southern border wall. This is a protest wall. The president supports it. DHS supports it,” Kolfage told CNN in May 2019. “So we’ve had the blessing of our government to move forward with this project.”

But after reports in July showed signs of erosion along the privately funded barriers, Trump denounced the project on Twitter as something “only done to make me look bad.”

“It’s a very sad thing by Mr. Bannon,” Trump said Thursday.

After Kolfage started the fundraising campaign, promising to transfer the money to the federal government toward building the wall, it was revealed there was no mechanism to do so. He then said his group had determined that only $800,000 of the approximately $20 million raised at that point needed to be returned.

“No rules were broken,” Kolfage said in an interview last year. “Ninety-four percent of the donors we have been able to reach are opting in. We’ve reached 75% of all the donors so far.”

Donors, however, wondered what had happened to the money.

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