Kathy McLain doesn’t often give money to charities or political causes. But when she learned about an online campaign to raise money to help build President Trump’s border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, McLain was compelled to donate — twice.
“I 100% support building a wall. I 100% support an organization that will build it,” McLain, 61, told Yahoo News in a series of direct messages on Facebook Friday. The self-described conservative’s Facebook page features several photos promoting Trump’s 2020 campaign for reelection.
In total, McLain said, she contributed $50 to the crowdfunding campaign. “Not much!” she said, though she noted that she and her husband, who live in El Paso, Texas, are both retired.
McLain is one of more than 250,000 people who gave money, mostly in comparably small sums, to the crowdfunding campaign known as We Build the Wall, which raised over $25 million for private construction of a barrier along the southwestern border.
She’s also among the hundreds of thousands of donors who, according to federal prosecutors, were defrauded by We Build the Wall leaders, including former White House adviser Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage, the disabled Air Force veteran who founded the border wall campaign.
Bannon and Kolfage were arrested Thursday, along with two other men, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, on charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. According to an indictment filed in the Southern District of New York, the four men allegedly solicited millions of dollars in donations from Trump supporters under the false promise that all of the money would go toward construction of a border wall. Instead, prosecutors charge, they each secretly siphoned off six-figure amounts for themselves.
“I am devastated that Steve Bannon and Brian Kolfage (and others) have been charged as I trusted them — especially Brian,” McLain told Yahoo News. “However,” she continued, “I fully believe in our justice system. I will not judge them but will leave it to a jury. It’s wrong to judge without the evidence.”
The 24-page indictment, which was unsealed Thursday, outlines a cynical scheme in which Bannon and the others allegedly sought to capitalize on Trump supporters’ desire to fund a border wall — a core tenet of Trump’s 2016 campaign — in order to enrich themselves.
And yet, while McLain said that pending the outcome of a trial, “my donations to ‘We Build The Wall’ will be suspended,” other donors seemed unconcerned and even incredulous in response to the charges.
“Yes I donated a small amount & no I’m not upset or dwelling on it,” Sheila Schroeder wrote in a message to Yahoo News on Facebook. “I gave in good faith towards something I feel strongly about and IF anything illegal took place then we have a legal process to address.
“Remember when people were innocent until proven guilty in a Court of Law not in a Public Forum[?],” she asked, before signing off with: “Trump 2020!”
Several donors shared their reactions in the comments posted to We Build the Wall’s Facebook page Friday, which broadcast a livestream of Bannon, already back in Washington on $5 million bail one day after pleading not guilty before a federal judge in Manhattan. He dismissed the indictment as a “total political hit job” during a livestream of his “War Room” podcast.
“I personally do not believe any of this,” John L. Cason wrote on Facebook, insisting that he was never under the impression that 100 percent of funds would go toward the wall. “If you have to contract construction yourself many people will need to be paid. I’m happy with my donation! Build that Wall!”
In the comments beneath Bannon’s livestream on We Build the Wall’s page, Benita Nelson-Adkins wrote, “I don’t regret giving for the wall would do it again.” (Asked to discuss her thoughts on the charges further with Yahoo News, Nelson-Adkins replied: “You are a leftist organization, I don’t trust my words would be translated correctly so no.”)
Others were more skeptical.
“So disappointed if this is true — i proudly contributed,” wrote Pru Templeton, while also noting that “they did get a good amount built.”
“I donated to the wall fund… if what they are charged with is true then I’m soooooooo damn disappointed!!!!” Pat Childers posted in a comment beneath Bannon’s livestream podcast Friday. “If they used this situation to enrich themselves then they are no better than the Dems.”
Bannon, who served as executive chairman of the right-wing website Breitbart News before becoming chief executive officer of Trump’s presidential campaign in August 2016, has been hailed as an architect of his unexpected White House win. On the campaign trail, Trump frequently stoked anti-immigrant sentiments with his pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and make Mexico pay for it.
But once in office, Trump found that neither Mexico nor Congress would agree to foot the bill for his pet project. And in the winter of 2018, a stalemate over the president’s demands for billions of dollars in federal funding for border wall construction led to the longest government shutdown in U.S. history.
Enter Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee Iraq War veteran whose most recent previous ventures included running a collection of now defunct right-wing websites that trafficked in conspiracy theories and fake news. On Dec. 16, 2018, with the shutdown looming, Kolfage took to the crowdfunding website GoFundMe and created a campaign called “We the People Will Fund the Wall.” The goal of the original campaign was to raise $1 billion, which Kolfage promised would be given entirely to the government for the purpose of constructing Trump’s border wall. If the campaign failed to reach its astronomically high goal, Kolfage promised, every donation would be refunded.
Though the campaign quickly went viral, receiving more than $13 million from over 213,000 people within roughly a week of its launch, it eventually became clear that neither the $1 billion goal nor the plan to give the funds directly to the federal government would be feasible.
According to the indictment, and confirmed by a GoFundMe spokesperson in a statement to Yahoo News, the crowdfunding site informed Kolfage he would have to identify a legitimate nonprofit to which he would transfer the funds he’d raised for the wall campaign, or the money would have to be refunded to the donors.
It was around the same time that Kolfage brought in Bannon and Andrew Badolato, a Sarasota, Fla.-based investor and longtime associate of Bannon’s with a checkered past. According to the indictment, “Within days of becoming involved, [Bannon] and [Badolato] took significant control of the fundraising campaigns organization and day-to-day activities, including its finances, messaging, donor outreach and general operations.” Bannon and Baldolato were allegedly already working together on a separate 501(c)(4) organization founded by Bannon “with the stated purpose of promoting economic nationalism and American sovereignty.”
Specifically, prosecutors charge that the pair worked with Kolfage to oversee the creation of a new nonprofit organization called We Build the Wall, Inc., to which they could transfer the money that had been raised by Kolfage’s original GoFundMe campaign, which by then had accumulated $20 million.
Per the indictment, on or around Jan. 11, 2019, We Build the Wall announced it had changed its mission to raising money for the private construction of a border wall. In accordance with GoFundMe’s requirements, those who had contributed to the previous campaign would have to “opt-in” to having their donation transferred to the new We Build the Wall organization for this purpose. Essentially, they would have to re-raise $20 million by convincing donors to opt in to this new project.
To help persuade donors to comply, federal prosecutors charge, Bannon and Badolato emphasized that 100 percent of the donations would go to funding border wall construction and issued repeated assurances that Kolfage “will not take a penny of compensation.”
The indictment refers to a text message exchange between Bannon and Badolato in which they discussed how this particular promise would be key to securing opt-ins as well as additional fundraising because, as Badolato allegedly stated, it “removes all self-interest taint” and “gives [B]rian Kolfage saint hood.”
Kolfage repeated this assertion often in donor emails as well as various public statements and social media posts.
Asked whether the assurances that Kolfage would not receive a salary influenced her decision to donate, Kathy McLain told Yahoo News, “I expect people to earn a wage and/or at least cover their related expenses … [so] no.”
But according to prosecutors, these assurances did make a difference for some.
“Some of those donors wrote directly to Kolfage that they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical about online fundraising campaigns, but they were giving what they could because they trusted Kolfage would keep his word about how their donations would be spent,” the indictment states. “Kolfage also wrote to prospective donors who raised concerns, assuring the donors in private messages that he was not being compensated.”
“Despite Kolfage’s numerous public statements that he was not making a salary or getting a penny in compensation,” the indictment states, “within days of launching We Build the Wall, Kolfage, working primarily with Bannon and Badolato, reached a secret agreement whereby Kolfage would be covertly paid ‘$100k upfront [and] then 20 [per] month.’” Through this arrangement, which allegedly involved funneling money through shell corporations and Bannon’s other nonprofit, the indictment states that Kolfage “covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds that donors had given to We Build the Wall” to fund his “lavish lifestyle,” while Bannon received over $1 million through another unnamed nonprofit under his control, “at least some of which” was used to pay for hundreds of thousands of dollars in his personal expenses.
Among the personal expenses Kolfage allegedly paid for with We Build the Wall funds are “home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.”
Bobby Whithorne, a spokesperson for GoFundMe, told Yahoo News Thursday that Kolfage has been banned from the crowdfunding site in light of the indictment.
“GoFundMe has a zero tolerance policy for fraudulent behavior and we have been cooperating with law enforcement officials throughout their investigation,” Whithorne said. Shortly before Kolfage’s arrest, Whithorne confirmed, the crowdfunding site removed his latest campaign, a fundraiser for a “class action lawsuit against Black Lives Matter, the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL For all victims of their racist attacks,” because it violated the site’s terms of service. Prior to that, as the COVID-19 pandemic first swept the United States back in March, Kolfage sought to capitalize on the nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment by creating another business that would sell the highly coveted and hard-to-find N95 masks at a profit.
So far, Bannon is the only defendant who has entered a plea in the case. Kolfage, Badolato and Shea were also released after appearing before magistrate judges in their respective home districts, but all three are scheduled for arraignment in the Southern District of New York, where the case has been assigned, on Aug. 31.
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