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Founder of wall-building fraud sentenced to more than four years in prison

The decorated Air Force veteran who started a bogus fundraiser with Steve Bannon admitted that he bought a boat and other luxuries with people's donations.

MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal judge handed down a 51-month prison sentence Wednesday to Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, the co-founder of a fraud called We Build the Wall, which he billed as a grassroots fundraiser to fulfill the campaign promise of former President Donald Trump for "big, beautiful" wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Along with venture capitalist Andrew Badolato, one of his associates in the campaign, Kolfage, 41, pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit wire fraud.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres took recommendation by prosecutors in sentencing Kolfage, who is a triple amputee following injuries in the Iraq War, to more than four years behind bars.

“Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato abused the trust of donors to We Build the Wall and stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to line their own pockets,” U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams said Wednesday, announcing the outcome. “The defendants have now been held accountable for their criminal conduct.”

At the state level, charges related to the fraud remain pending against Steve Bannon, Trump's former strategist and the most famous partner in the We Build the Wall operation. Though the original federal indictment had named Bannon as a co-defendant alongside Kolfage and Badolato, Trump pardoned Bannon during his last day as president in January 2017.

New York was able to charge Bannon because presidential pardons apply only to federal crimes, not state offenses.

When Trump was in office, We Build The Wall raked in $25 million in donations with the promise from its organizers that 100% of the funds would go toward construction of a southern border wall. Kolfage specifically had pledged that he would take no compensation, but he and Badolato secretly agreed with Bannon that Kolfage would covertly be paid $100,000 up front, and then receive $20,000 in monthly kickback payments from donor funds.

“All told, Kolfage received more than $350,000 in donor funds from WBTW, all of which was passed to him indirectly after being laundered through COAR, RPMM, or other intermediaries by Bannon, Badolato, and Shea,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing filing. “Kolfage spent that money on personal expenses, including home renovations, boat payments, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, and personal tax payments and credit card debt.”

Badalato was sentenced at the same hearing on Wednesday to three years imprisonment for his role in the We Build The Wall fraud. Prosecutors had recommended more time, 41 months.

The maximum sentence for conspiracy to commit wire fraud is 20 years, but Kolfage and Badolato's plea agreements specified that they will not challenge sentences within an already agreed-upon range. The guidelines range for Kolfage was four to five years, and slightly less for Badolato — roughly 3 1/2 years to four years.

Kolfage and Badolato were also ordered to pay $25 million in restitution to the victims.

A fourth partner in the We Build The Wall scheme, Tim Shea, will be sentenced in June.

Shea was the only co-defendant to take the case to trial, where he was ultimately convicted last October on counts of fraud and conspiracy for his role in the sham charity.

He originally went to trial on the three counts earlier in the year, but those proceedings ended in a mistrial thanks to a holdout juror.  

Prosecutors are asking a sentence of five years and three months for Shea, who they say took additional steps to obstruct the government’s investigation of his misconduct, drafting up fraudulent invoices and backdating checks and wire transfers to cover up intermediary kickback transactions after finding out a criminal probe was underway.

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Categories / Consumers, Criminal, Politics

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