State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, pushed a bill in 2019 that would have allowed Alabamians to send a portion of their tax refunds to We Build the Wall Inc., a nonprofit formed to build private sections of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The U.S. Department of Justice on Thursday announced the arrest of the nonprofit’s founder, Brian Kolfage, President Donald Trump’s former top aide Steve Bannon and two others, all charged with conspiracy to defraud hundreds of thousands from donors, who sent in more than $25 million, some of which was directed to the defendants despite claims that 100 percent of the money would be used to “build the wall.”
Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, on Thursday unsealed indictments for the defendants, which state that in December 2018, Kolfage, Bannon, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea crafted a plan to defraud the public through an online crowdfunding scheme.
The indictment states that “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.’”
In truth, Kolfage, 38, received more than $350,000 sent through fake invoices to shell companies and other nonprofits to fund a lavish lifestyle, according to the charges.
Bannon in an interview said “I did this kind of as a volunteer” and “we’re a volunteer organization,” according to the indictment. Secretly, and through text messages, the group agreed to pay Kolfage $100,000 upfront and $20,000 per month.
Bannon received more than $1 million in donor funds, some of which was paid to Kolfage while the rest he used for his personal expenses, according to the indictment. The indictment states that Kolfage used the money for “home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt.”
The indictments state that Kolfage, in a text message to Badolato, said that “[a]s far as [the public] know[s], no one is getting paid” and “[S]alaries will never be disclosed.”
Around October 2019, the defendants learned they were under investigation and began using encrypted apps on their cell phones to communicate with one another and added a statement to the We Build the Wall website that said Kolfage would start receiving a salary in January 2020, according to the charges.
Koflage first raised more than $17 million in a GoFundMe project, but the project was suspended by the crowdfunding website and required Kolfage to identify a nonprofit that would be accepting the money. The defendants then turned the We Build the Wall organization into a nonprofit, according to the indictment.
The defendants are each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The Alabama Senate on March 21 voted 23-6 along partisan lines to approve Marsh’s bill that would let Alabamians send a portion of their tax returns to the We Build the Wall nonprofit. The Alabama House never took up Marsh’s proposal, however.
“I think it’s a way for Alabamians to say to the president and to the nation that we think strong border security is important. We want to promote that. We want Washington to build that wall,” Marsh said at the time, according to AL.com.
Marsh did not immediately respond to messages Thursday seeking his comments on the arrests.
APR’s Bill Britt in March 2019 reported on Kolfage’s schemes and on a previous crowdfunding venture, in which Kolfage lied to donors about connections of his veterans mentorship program to military hospitals — connections that did not exist. “None of these issues were part of the debate before the Republican supermajority passed Senate Bill 22,” Britt reported.