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Disabled vet pleads guilty in border-wall scheme that included Bannon

Brian Kolfage, who lost both his legs and an arm while serving his second deployment in Iraq in 2004, attends the Veterans Day parade in New York in 2014. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

NEW YORK — Brian Kolfage, a disabled veteran who headed a $25 million fundraising effort for a U.S.-Mexico border wall with the help of former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon, has pleaded guilty in connection to defrauding donors for his own gain.

Kolfage, an amputee who lost three limbs serving in Iraq, could serve more than five years in prison. He was accused of using more than $350,000 in donations on personal expenses such as home renovations and vehicle payments, after telling “We Build the Wall” campaign contributors that he would not take a cut of the collections or give himself a salary. On Thursday, in federal court in Manhattan, he admitted to siphoning off money for himself and also pleaded guilty to tax crimes for failing to report that income.

The Florida resident told U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres that the organization met roadblocks in carrying out its original mission of subsidizing the construction of a border wall but that he “continued to raise funds and promised I would take no salary and would not take a penny in profits.”

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Kolfage, a conservative activist, admitted that he “knowingly and willfully conspired to receive money from donations” as he pleaded guilty to wire fraud and tax-related charges.

As part of his plea agreement, he agreed to forfeit more than $17 million collected during the fundraising push.

“We Build the Wall” was a large-scale private crowdfunding effort orchestrated by Kolfage, Bannon, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea in 2018. Its stated goal was to help the federal government complete the coast-to-coast barrier President Donald Trump had repeatedly promised his supporters. The four men were arrested in August 2020, when prosecutors accused Bannon of personally pocketing more than $1 million.

Bannon, a far-right figure who was a key strategist in Trump’s 2016 campaign, followed Trump to the White House for a relatively short stint as an administration official.

Their relationship had not completely soured by the end of Trump’s presidency, and Bannon received a presidential pardon on the eve of Trump’s departure from the White House, part of a wave of more than 140 other clemency actions — including for Trump associates who were ensnared in the Justice Department’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

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Kolfage, Badolato and Shea were not given clemency. Badolato also pleaded guilty on Thursday to wire fraud and faces up to 4¼ years in prison. Kolfage and Badolato are expected to be sentenced in September. They were allowed to remain free on bail after Thursday’s proceeding.

Building a border wall on the theory that it would help curtail illegal immigration through Mexico was a hallmark campaign promise of Trump’s that never came to fruition. He promised that Mexico would pay for the wall’s construction, which the U.S. neighbor never agreed to.

Trump supporters who championed his promise of constructing a wall quickly dumped funds into “We Build the Wall,” which began as a GoFundMe drive.

Kolfage said Thursday that after launching the fund, he learned that a donation could not be made to the U.S. government to be specifically earmarked for subsidizing wall construction.

“We Build the Wall” was Kolfage’s brainchild. It followed a previous fundraising bid he spearheaded, ostensibly for veterans at military hospitals. In that drive, he was accused of misusing the collections by directing donations to his conservative website.

Separately, Bannon was indicted in November on contempt of Congress charges for refusing to comply with subpoenas by the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection. That case is pending.