UPDATE: The White House responded to the Friday indictment by reaffirming the president was not involved in any way with We Build The Wall, Inc, or any of the people currently being charged by the Southern District of New York.
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany shared a tweet by President Trump in July that criticized the effort by the nonprofit to private build a “very small” section of wall that was fraught with issues.
ORIGINAL STORY: Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was indicted on Thursday with others involved in a self-enrichment scheme that allegedly defrauded donors of millions of dollars with the promise of building an inexpensive border wall.
At the center of the scandal is Brian Kolfage, a U.S. Air Force Veteran who launched a GoFundMe campaign called “We Build the Wall,” promising to construct a barrier along the Mexican border that he would then sell to the government for a fraction of their own projected cost.
The fundraising campaign, which elicited an average of $67 per person from more than 300,000 donors, is alleged to have raised more than $25 million with the promise of building a wall at a fraction of the estimated cost.
“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,” said acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss in a Friday statement.
Kolfage persistently claimed that he would not draw a salary from the funds raised through the online campaign and that all donated money would go directly to border wall construction. Charity watchdogs warned donors early on that there was great risk in supporting Kolfage’s cause.
Kolfage claimed in January of 2019 that he had transferred approximately $11 million from the GoFundMe account to his private nonprofit but did not provide much more transparency. Documents he claimed would prove his intentions to distribute the money only toward construction costs were not produced, as reported by the Daily Caller News Foundation at the time.
Bannon’s involvement in “We Build the Wall” came early in 2019 when he signed on as a backer for We Build the Wall, Inc, a nonprofit based in Florida that was launched by Kolfage following the surge in online donations. The website, still active as of Thursday morning, claims that all $25 million in donations said to have come from 500,000 unique individuals would be applied toward border wall construction.
To date, We Build the Wall, Inc. claims to have completed a half-mile section of wall sealing off a mountainous gap near El Paso, Texas. The nonprofit’s website is currently offering private tours for $20.
Evidence that led to the indictments of Bannon, Kolfage, and two others on Friday was not immediately made clear.
The arrest of Bannon and supposed confirmation of criminal activity by We Build the Wall led some to hope that there would be more crackdowns of nonprofits and political action committees who raise funds for dubious means.
Many drew comparisons to the suspicions leading up to the arrests on Friday to the controversy surrounding the Lincoln Project, a pro-Biden PAC helmed by several former conservative strategists that has raised millions of dollars and created a series of anti-Trump ads.
The Lincoln Project members have been tied to Russian funding, nonpayment of federal taxes, and the group itself has been caught stealing online content for their own social media feed.