After pardon for Bannon, 2 to admit bilking donors to border wall
By Benjamin Weiser
In Donald Trump’s final hours as president in January 2021, he pardoned his onetime chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who faced charges that he had conspired to swindle donors to a private group that promised to build a wall along the Mexican border.
But three men charged with Bannon were not pardoned, and two of them are expected to plead guilty on Thursday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, court filings show.
One is Brian Kolfage, a 40-year-old Air Force veteran from Miramar Beach, Florida, who lost both legs and an arm during his service in Iraq, and who founded the fundraising campaign for the private We Build the Wall project, intended to further one of Trump’s signature political initiatives.
Building a wall along the country’s southwestern border to repel migrants became a rallying cry for Trump throughout his presidency, and the charges against Bannon and his co-defendants suggested they had exploited the issue’s popularity among Trump supporters to dupe donors to their project for private gain.
“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, then the U.S. attorney in Manhattan, when the charges were announced in August 2020.
The other defendant expected to plead guilty on Thursday is Andrew Badolato, 57, a venture capitalist from Sarasota, Florida, the court filings show. The fourth, Timothy Shea, 51, of Castle Rock, Colorado, had reached a tentative deal to plead guilty, but changed his mind, prosecutors said in a recent court filing. Shea is scheduled for trial on May 16.
The We Build the Wall case has been widely watched, initially because of Bannon’s connection and then, after his pardon, because the three less-well-connected defendants were left facing prosecution.
Bannon, 68, could still end up playing a part in the case if Shea goes to trial next month. The prosecution, for example, could call Bannon as a witness to testify about the case, and with his pardon and the immunity it confers, he would not be able to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Meanwhile, Shea’s lawyer, John C. Meringolo, has said in court papers that the defense plans to call Bannon as a witness.
“We don’t believe the government can prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt against Tim Shea,” Meringolo said by phone this week.
When the charges were announced, prosecutors said that in order to induce donors to contribute, Bannon and Kolfage “repeatedly and falsely assured the public” that Kolfage would “not take a penny in salary or compensation,” and that all the money raised would be used “in the execution of our mission and purpose.”
According to the indictment, the fundraising campaign raised more than $25 million for the project.
But prosecutors said Bannon and his co-defendants misrepresented the true use of the donated funds.
The indictment accused Bannon of siphoning more than $1 million from the project through a nonprofit organization he controlled, and using the money, among other things, to pay Kolfage and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses.
The indictment said Kolfage took more than $350,000 in donated funds and used that money to pay for home renovations, a luxury SUV, boat payments, a golf cart, cosmetic surgery and jewelry.
Kolfage will plead guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, prosecutors said in their court filing. He will also plead guilty to federal tax-related charges that were filed against him in Florida and later moved to New York.
Bannon remains under a separate investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office for his role in the project, according to 2021 news reports. Trump’s pardon of Bannon applied only to federal crimes, not to state offenses.
A spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, declined to comment.