Of course there’s a Florida angle to the federal indictment of President Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and others connected with the alleged plunder of a crowdfunding campaign that raised $25 million intended to help build the president’s border wall.
Two angles, in fact. Two of the suspects live in Florida. Additionally, Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried opened her own investigation into the charity last year and had forwarded information about the operation to the FBI.
The accused include Brian Kolfage, who lives in Miramar Beach and was to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hope T. Cannon in Pensacola, and Andrew Badolato, of Sarasota, who was to appear before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson in Tampa. Bannon was to appear in New York and the fourth suspect, Timothy Shea, in Colorado.
The indictment alleges that, despite promises 100% of the money raised by the We Build the Wall organization would go to the border wall, Kolfage converted more than $350,000 to his personal use and that Bannon got more than $1 million. The government is seeking forfeiture of assets including a 2018 Land Rover and a 2019 Jupiter Marine boat called “Warfighter.” (Kolfage is a wounded Iraq war veteran.)
After word of the indictments and arrests emerged from the U.S. Attorney’s Office from the Southern District of New York Thursday, Fried said that her probe of the We Build the Wall organization began in May 2019, based on complaints from contributors, and is still going on.
She also announced that she’d frozen the organization’s charity registration.
“Anyone accused of defrauding Floridians should face the full measure of justice that is required. From the beginning, this investigation has been fully non-partisan, independent, and carried out with the professionalism it deserves. As our department considers further action, I thank the U.S. Department of Justice and federal and state partners for their efforts to protect Florida’s consumers from alleged fraud,” Fried said in a written statement.
The investigation was conducted not by the FBI but by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the New York field office of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Audrey Strauss became acting U.S. attorney after Attorney General William Barr ousted her predecessor, Geoffrey Berman, in June. She’d served as his deputy.
“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,” Strauss said in a written statement.
“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,” she said.
“The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds,” Inspector-in-Charge Philip Bartlett said.
“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. 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.”