Steve Vockrodt, Jonathan Shorman, And Bryan Lowry
The Kansas City Star
Leaders of We Build the Wall, an organization that raised $25 million through a crowdfunding campaign to build a private southern border wall and whose general counsel is former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, have been indicted on fraud charges.
The indictment, unsealed in federal court in New York, alleges that the leaders of We Build the Wall, who include Stephen Bannon, former adviser to President Donald Trump, defrauded donors by telling them that the money raised was solely for a border wall. They also falsely claimed that they were volunteers who would not take compensation. We Build the Wall, launched in 2018, is a 501(c)4 nonprofit.
Indicted on Thursday were Bannon, We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea. They face charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The indictment states that Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato and others became aware in October of 2019 through a financial institution that the organization was under a federal criminal investigation and took steps to conceal the fraudulent scheme.
Kobach has not been charged and is not referenced in the indictment. Kobach, who campaigned unsuccessfully for governor in 2018 and U.S. Senate in 2020, has served as the group’s general counsel since early 2019. He has also featured prominently in the group’s fundraising videos.
He repeatedly touted his involvement with the group during his Senate race. He said as recently as July 6 that he was working with We Build the Wall.
“There’s a lot of legal work in that because not only am I negotiating with landowners where we’re going to build the next privately-funded section of wall, I’m also talking to the Department of Homeland Security and making sure our specifications are consistent with theirs,” Kobach said.
We Build the Wall is one of seven clients that paid Kobach’s law firm $5,000 or more since January of 2019, according to the financial disclosure form he filed with the U.S. Senate in May. He was not required to list the exact amount he received from each client, but the total income from his firm was listed as $444,000 from January of 2019 to May of 2020.
Kobach did not answer a phone call Thursday morning. The charges against the organization come just weeks after Kobach lost the Republican primary to Rep. Roger Marshall by double digits.
President Donald Trump in July lamented We Build the Wall’s efforts after a report surfaced in Texas that the private wall was poorly built.
Trump has built his political brand on the promise to build a southern border wall in hopes of deterring undocumented immigrants from crossing the United States-Mexico border. He complained in a tweet that We Build the Wall “was only done to make me look bad.”
However, the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump, Jr., participated in a fundraiser for the group with Bannon and Kobach last year.
The indictment said that We Build the Wall leaders laundered money through a shell company and and fake invoices to pay themselves.
“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,” said Audrey Strauss, acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“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 did not immediately respond to an email Thursday. In an interview in June with The Star for a story about Kobach’s Senate campaign, Kolfage said he and Kobach were first connected through Bannon. At the time, Kolfage said Kobach was “involved in every decision-making process for the organization.”
“Because we’ve had so many eyes just watching every move that we make and he’s been able to help me make sure everything we do is by the book and legally above board,” Kolfage said.
Kolfage, 38, is alleged to have covertly taken $350,000 in We Build the Wall funds for his personal use. Bannon, 66, is alleged to have routed $1 million from the organization, funneling it through an unnamed nonprofit that he controls to pay himself and Kolfage.
In a Star story from a year ago, Kobach said his work with We Build the Wall was “one of the most rewarding things I have done in my career” and helped deepen his understanding of threats posed by drug cartels.
The story uncovered concerns by a federal agency about We Build the Wall’s work, chiefly that it would direct people seeking to cross the border near the private wall to a federal dam on the Rio Grande River, raising security and safety concerns.
Local officials in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where some of the construction by We Build the Wall was taking place, were unhappy about the project and issued a stop-work order because work was proceeding without necessary permits.
Subscribers to We Build the Wall’s email list received a message encouraging them to donate to Kobach’s campaign for Senate, which prompted complaints from multiple watchdog groups who alleged that the nonprofit had violated federal campaign finance laws.
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