Tuesday, September 26, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, September 26, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Jury No. 2 takes over wall-building fraud case

It is the second time Tim Shea heads into deliberations. His first ended in a mistrial thanks to a juror who was on guard for "government witch hunts."

MANHATTAN (CN) — A federal jury began deliberations Thursday afternoon in the retrial of a Colorado businessman who helped Steve Bannon and others crowdfund for a border wall, collecting millions but accomplishing very little actual fencing.

 “This was not cause — it was a con,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Bracewell told jurors during closing arguments Thursday morning, summarizing the government's case against one of the operators of We Build the Wall, a fundraiser that promised it could fulfill a Trump campaign promise of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by way of private donations.

“This was not about real work, it was about conning real people out of real money,” the Southern District of New York prosecutor continued.

Prosecutors originally brought the case back in 2020, indicting Bannon, the former Trump campaign strategist, alongside Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, venture capitalist Andrew Badolato and the Castle Rock, Colorado-based Tim Shea. Following guilty pleas from Kolfage and Badolato, on top of Bannon's presidential pardon, Shea is the last man standing in the original federal case.

We Build The Wall promised donors that the fundraiser's principals would not take “single penny” of compensation from donors’ money. Prosecutors say this was a lie, however, and that the defendants hatched “secret deal that donors never knew about” to fleece the charity. Kolfage, the triple-amputee public face of the fundraiser, was paid $100,000 up front and then received a $20,000 monthly salary.

Bracewell noted Thursday that the defendants had no intention of adhering to their “powerful, compelling fundraising message" of not taking any salary or compensation.

“From the beginning it was a lie.”

We Build the Wall launched in December 2018, raising roughly $17 million in its first week on GoFundMe — an amount that appeared to surprise even the organizers.

“I mean people are crazy," Shea wrote in a text message to Kolfage that Bracewell quoted for jurors. "Who would throw money at something like this? At Christmas!”

Bracewell said Shea and his We Build the Wall cohorts treated the fundraiser as a “bottomless piggybank they looted for whatever they wanted to do."

In a summation that lasted about 80 minutes, the government laid out the fake invoices and backdated payment requests that Shea is accused of using to launder the stolen funds and funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars in We Build the Wall donation funds to himself and his partners in the scheme.

Bracewell directed jurors to a series of charts illustrating how kickbacks from donors’ money flowed from We Build the Wall to Shea’s shell company, Ranch Property Management, to Kolfage’s conservative news site Freedom Daily, which then transferred funds directly to Kolfage’s personal bank account. The shell company, incorporated in Wyoming, made subsequent transfers of thousands of dollars to Shea and his wife, Amanda.

Though Shea's wife held herself out on Twitter as CFO of We Build the Wall, she has not been charged. At trial, prosecutors quoted her as telling her We Build The Wall cohorts of the charity: “It’ll be a gold mine for sure."

Tim Shea, 51, faces three criminal counts. He was initially prosecuted in the spring, but the court ordered a mistrial to deal with a holdout juror who heaved Trump-style MAGA grievances in a panel that was otherwise ready to convict.

The retrial began Tuesday and headed to a new phase of jury deliberations Thursday morning after Shea’s defense wrapped in under an hour. Shea’s lawyers did not call any witnesses in the trial.

“My client worked,” defense attorney John Meringolo exclaimed loudly, more often standing away from the courtroom microphone than near.

The lawyer rarely stood idle or kept his hands still for the 40 minutes of his closing summation, flipping through various points of contention scrawled on stack of square neon Post-It notes rather than reading from a prepared “script,” in his words.

“Tim Shea is sloppy,” Meringolo insisted at one point, eliciting a nod from the defendant as his lawyer tried to posit that Shea wasn’t committing frauds with donor money, rather he had just been negligent at his taxes and accounting.

Meringolo also revived a challenge from his opening argument that Shea should have been indicted in another jurisdiction. Noting that all of the witnesses who testified as defrauded donors hailed from out of state, among thousands of donors to We Build The Wall from the New York district, Meringolo urged jurors find reasonable doubt.

In an echo of Shea's last trial, Meringolo again chose to rest his brief argument this morning on about a dozen exhibits entered into evidence, including a pixelated video of We Build the Wall board member Kris Kobach speaking at one of the border wall construction sites.

Shea is charged with counts conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and falsification of records. Each of the three criminal counts carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

Kolfage and Badolato are set to be sentenced in December.

Bannon's pardon shields him from federal prosecution only. New York state responded just last month by indicting the former conservative strategist related to the We Build the Wall scheme.

Follow @jruss_jruss
Categories / Criminal, Politics, Trials

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.