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Steve Bannon, a $25M Border Wall Campaign, and a GoFundMe Gone Bad

Ultimately, most donors allowed their contributions to funnel to We Build the Wall rather than accept a refund, under repeated assurances that all of their money would go directly to construction. Several hundred thousands of those dollars, prosecutors say, did not.

We Build the Wall did put money toward its stated purpose, although the indictment does not specify how much. But prosecutors allege that Kolfage, Bannon, and Badolato also agreed to pay Kolfage $100,000 upfront and $20,000 per month afterward under the table. To obscure those payments, the indictment says, they routed them through a separate nonprofit that Bannon and Badolato already controlled. The first payout went through on February 11, one month after GoFundMe had first pulled the plug. Every month, like clockwork, another $20,000 was wired from We Build the Wall to Bannon’s nonprofit, and then from the nonprofit’s bank account to Kolfage.

The scheme got slightly more sophisticated from there, according to court documents. The nonprofit sent payments to Kolfage’s spouse, claiming on a tax form that it was for “media.” Starting in April 2019, Kolfage’s alleged monthly salary was passed through purported We Build the Wall vendors, including a shell company incorporated by Shea. As before, We Build the Wall paid the shell company, and the shell company turned much of that money around to pay Kolfage, claiming it was for “social media” accounts and pages. Over the course of 10 months, prosecutors say, Kolfage took in over $350,000 that had been passed through friendly third-party entities.

He wasn’t alone. Bannon, Badolato, and Shea each “received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donor funds to build the wall,” the indictment says, which they allegedly spent on everything from personal travel to paying off credit card debt. Court documents say that Bannon specifically took in over a million dollars from We Build the Wall, some of which he used to pay Kolfage, and a “substantial portion” of which he kept.

When they found out from a bank that they might be under investigation last October, Kolfage and Badolato allegedly switched over to an encrypted messaging platform. Mentions of Kolfage not taking a salary were scrubbed from the We Build the Wall website, the indictment says, and replaced with a statement that he would receive one starting January 2020.

“As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth,” said inspector-in-charge Philip R. Bartlett of the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service, which participated in the investigation. “This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist.”

It should also serve as a warning to potential donors on crowdfunding platforms. One thing that separated the alleged scheme from previous crowdfunding scams of note is that We Build the Wall had an unusual veneer of legitimacy. For starters, it apparently did put money toward wall construction. And the fact that it operated as a registered 501(c)(4) nonprofit gave the organization the appearance of propriety. Still, the case provides some lessons for staying safe going forward.

“Typically we want people to look for an established track record if there is doubt in what they’re supporting. With this being a newly registered entity, there was not that track record to look into,” says Kevin Scally, chief relationship officer at Charity Navigator, a nonprofit that evaluates charitable organizations. “It is important in this case that there was some uncertainty of the probability that something like this would come to fruition. Some donors did throw caution to the wind because they wanted to see this get done.”