How A Border Wall Fundraiser Jumped Head-First Into The International Medical Supply Game

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April 9, 2020 4:17 p.m.
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On March 3, Brian Kolfage tried to reach the U.S. government — through Instagram.

The triple-amputee Air Force veteran, who’s best known for running the crowd-funded border wall project “We Build The Wall,” had found a new line of work: Medical supply middleman.

Before the sudden change, Kolfage had spent tens of millions of dollars collected from Trump supporters to build steel bollard fencing on private land at the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas.

The project, billed as an effort to help the President complete his promised wall, had been a slog. Hampered by permitting issues, rightwing militia ties, and an international dispute over debris that tumbled from a work site into Mexico, the effort has so far completed just two segments of wall — a total of less than 5 miles.

A new industry beckoned. Kolfage posted a picture of a massive warehouse filled with hundreds of boxes marked “3M.” He said they contained 300 million N95 surgical masks just waiting to reach health professionals in need around the country.

There was, however, a big problem: Kolfage didn’t know if any of that was true.

In fact, the masks in the photo didn’t belong to him, and they weren’t for sale. Rather, they were sitting in a storehouse of supplies in Salt Lake City, part of a humanitarian shipment that, when photographed, was destined for a hospital in Shanghai. They belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The photo in Kolfage’s post was first published more than a month earlier, in an LDS press release on Jan. 29. It was part of two dozen photos that tracked the masks on their trip from the Church’s Bishops’ Central Storehouse in Salt Lake City to the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, which had been depleted of supplies due to the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.

According to the church, there were a couple hundred thousand masks total in the shipment, not 300 million as Kolfage claimed the photo showed.

“These are our dear brothers and sisters, and we feel privileged to be able to offer some small measure of help,” LDS President Russell M. Nelson is quoted as saying in the release.

A worker at the Bishops’ Central Storehouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City loads supplies that will go to China to assist with the coronavirus outbreak, Wednesday, January 29, 2020. (LDS Newsroom)

Others in the mask game, from social media groups to e-retailers, have used the same image to falsely represent their supply.

One retailer, a U.S.-based eBay vendor, used the church’s photo in several different posts advertising masks. “3M N95 Available stocks!!!” reads a Facebook post by “Asia Pacific Safety & Industrial Supply Inc.” From “Gorilla Defence Trading Co., Ltd” in Ukraine to the Slovak company “Baumer Team S.R.O.,” many would-be mask middlemen have claimed access to the Mormons’ massive stockpile.

Upon hearing the truth about his Instagram post on a phone call Wednesday, Kolfage shrugged it off.

“That’s the nature of this market, there’s so much uncertainty,” he said. “Ninety or 95% of all deals are scams.”

“The alleged Osaka deal” as Kolfage now calls it — he claims the photo was given to him by sellers in Japan who misled him — illustrates the Wild West nature of the global medical supply chain right now.

The market has been been upended by a bottomless pit of coronavirus-related demand, and entrepreneurs like Kolfage have jumped to fill the void, even if they’re not totally sure of what’s real, and what’s not.

According to Kolfage, his new company, “America First Medical,” got word in early March that there was a huge supply of masks in Japan available for sale. He sent a letter of intent to the supposed suppliers and then advertised the masks on Instagram using the LDS image, which he claimed came from “the guys in Japan.”

“Have 300 million 3m 1860 surgical n95 masks sitting in warehouse trying to reach the US government and arm up our docs with proper equipment,” Kolfage captioned the Instagram post. “Message me please. @whitehouse @donaldjtrumpjr @realdonaldtrump @cdcgov @dhsgov”

Kolfage told TPM he hoped to be a middleman. He didn’t really “have” anything, but his letter of intent was enough to say so, he asserted: “It places the company first in line if they were first to get the letter in.”

If he’d found a buyer, Kolfage said he would have used a third-party vendor to confirm that the Japanese salesmen he was in touch with were serious. But he never did.

What ultimately happened to the supposed stash of masks is another complicated story: Kolfage claimed on Instagram at the time that the U.S. government had acted too slowly and that “someone else bought” the supply. But he eventually relayed to TPM that the Japanese government had seized the shipment from his supplier.

“Too many deals going on,” he said, explaining the confusion.

Indeed, these are flush times in the mask industry. Prices for coveted N95 masks like the ones Kolfage was trying to sell are 10 times what they were before the pandemic.

Kolfage told TPM that he’s supplying retailers with 4–5 million surgical style masks every single week, and that he has “full contract deals with foreign countries to supply them masks.” He told Reuters, which first reported his new hustle, that he was selling the masks for about $4 each. And he said Wednesday that his company typically takes a 1–3% commission.

But without any information about his customers — Kolfage isn’t willing to share any details — his claims, at least for now, are as impossible to verify as his Instagram post.

“I don’t want them getting spooked,” he said of his new clients. “In a couple weeks I’m sure you’ll see our products on shelves somewhere.”

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