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Ex-Tucsonan pleads guilty in fraudulent border-wall fundraiser

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NEW YORK — The co-founder of the “We Build The Wall” project aimed at raising money for a border wall pleaded guilty Thursday to charges in a case that once included former President Donald Trump’s adviser Steve Bannon.

Brian Kolfage, who has significant ties to Tucson, admitted to pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars while promising all donations would pay for the wall.

His plea came a month before a trial in a case that began in dramatic fashion in August 2020 when Bannon was pulled from a luxury yacht off the coast of Connecticut and arrested on allegations that he and three others falsely promised donors that all donations would help build a wall on the southern border.

Bannon, who recently purchased a house in Oro Valley, was pardoned by Trump just before he left office last year. Bannon had pleaded not guilty to charges that he pocketed over $1 million, using some of the money to secretly pay Kolfage, an Air Force veteran who lost both legs in a mortar attack in Iraq. Kolfage also made news in 2019, when he complained about a gay-friendly flag flying at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

The fundraising for the border wall was launched at an event in Sahuarita on Feb. 8, 2019, the Star has previously reported. That’s when Bannon told the Star that “100% of this money is going to build the wall and the legal fight” to get the wall built.

Instead, Bannon pulled $100,000 from the donations on Feb. 11 to “secretly pay” former Tucsonan Brian Kolfage, the head of the fundraising campaign who had pledged he wouldn’t take a penny of the $25 million raised from thousands of donors, Star news archives show.

In the following months, Bannon illegally pulled out more than $1 million of donated money, including $350,000 paid to Kolfage, federal prosecutors in New York said in a court filing in August 2020, the Star has reported.

A guilty plea Thursday by co-defendant financier Andrew Badolato in the case during the same remotely conducted electronic hearing before U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres in Manhattan meant that only one of the four defendants originally charged might go to trial in mid-May.

Plea agreements between the government and Kolfage and Badolato specified the defendants will not challenge sentences within an agreed-to guidelines range. For Kolfage, that range was four to five years. For Badolato, it was roughly 3 1/2 years to four years. Sentencing was scheduled for Sept. 6.

Kolfage, of Miramar Beach, Florida, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy and tax charges brought originally in Florida. Badolato, of Sarasota, Florida, pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy. Without the plea deal, Kolfage could have faced up to 46 years in prison while Badolato faced a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.

The organizers of the “We Build The Wall” group raised more than $25 million from thousands of donors as they repeatedly pledged that every dollar would be used for the project.

Asked to describe his crimes by the judge, Kolfage said the group had originally intended for all the raised money to be used to build a wall, but it “soon became apparent” that the plan to donate the money to the U.S. government for the wall’s construction was not possible.

At that point, he said, they “induced donors to opt in to the new project” to build a border wall on private land by falsely representing that none of the donations would be spent on salaries or compensation to the fundraisers.

“I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime,” he said.

After he spoke, Torres asked questions, including whether he had promised the public that “100 percent” of the money would go toward building the wall.

“That is correct,” he answered.

“Despite your promise, you made an agreement with others to keep a large sum of money for yourself,” the judge said.

“That is correct,” Kolfage answered.

Badolato said he engaged in the conspiracy from 2018 to 2020, agreeing to assure donors that all the money would go toward building the wall when he knew the statements were false.

“I knew this was wrong and I’m terribly, terribly sorry for what I did and I humbly beg the court for mercy,” he said.

When the judge asked Badolato if he was aware that Kolfage was going to get money from donations, he said: “Yes I did and I helped facilitate it.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nicolas Roos said evidence against the men at trial would have included testimony from donors, along with transaction records following donations into the defendants’ bank accounts, emails and text records, along with public statements made by the coconspirators that were false.

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For Star subscribers: The Arizona Legislature has budgeted $335 million for border barrier construction. But what will actually be built might be a combination of a virtual wall and barriers around critical infrastructure not directly on the U.S.-Mexico border, the Governor's Office says.  

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