You may have noticed, if you’ve followed “We Build The Wall” for a few months as I have, that its leadership often made light of accusations it was defrauding its donors.
On Thursday, after WBTW founder Brian Kolfage, Steve Bannon and two others were indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with conspiracies to commit wire fraud and money laundering, reporters dug up some of that superbly ironic hubris.
Folks, this really happened. pic.twitter.com/EviEJCGvs7
— John Whitehouse (@existentialfish) August 21, 2020
Yes, that’s video of Bannon joking to Kolfage, during an event at a construction site, that “we’re on the million-dollar yacht of Brian Kolfage. Brian Kolfage — he took all that money from Build the Wall.”
“No, we’re actually in Sunland Park, New Mexico,” Bannon continued, ending the bit.
The indictment of these men alleges that they did secretly skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from We Build The Wall, despite promising not to take salaries. Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday.
Kolfage allegedly used part of the $350,000 he took for a boat — “Warfighter,” which, of course, set sail in a recent Trump Boat Parade.
So why was Bannon telling a joke that, according to the feds, was not in fact a joke, at risk of incriminating his alleged co-conspirator? Well, it goes back to the fact that We Build The Wall was, from the start, viewed suspiciously by dogged reporters.
In May last year, The Daily Beast’s Will Sommer reported on donors to We Build The Wall who were upset that construction hadn’t started yet despite the project raising more than $20 million. And, blogging on Medium, Grant Stern quoted an unnamed source who said Kolfage was “using the wall money to fly private, range rovers boats, etc.”
We Build The Wall responded by emphasizing the very policy that Kolfage is accused of violating — swearing that he wouldn’t take a salary. The fact-checking website Snopes did an article on the allegations, finding no evidence to support them. (That post has since been updated to note Kolfage and Bannon’s indictment.) Kolfage seized the opportunity to dunk on his critics.
You were fooled by fake news. https://t.co/bttvugcZxI
— Brian Kolfage (@BrianKolfage) May 19, 2019
It was in that context — in the midst of accusations they used donors’ money to fund their lavish lifestyles, yet with deniability still on their side and a chip on their shoulders — that Bannon and Kolfage were in such a jocular mood at their “We Build the Wall Wall-A-Thon” in Sunland Park, New Mexico, the site of their first wall.
Now, of course, the shoe is on the other foot:
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) August 20, 2020
There’s still a bunch of questions left unanswered about We Build The Wall. One of the most interesting is the investigation of the group’s charitable status in Florida, where it was registered.
Last year, responding to complaints, Florida regulators began looking into the group. I reached out at the time and a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services told me that it had “opened an investigation into this charity on May 17. As this matter is now an active investigation, the Department cannot comment further. No additional information is available at this time.”
The complaints, which I also obtained, concerned the group’s corporate structure. “I am concerned this high-profile fundraising effort is obtaining widespread press on the basis of potentially or intentionally misleading representations,” one complaint read.
I hadn’t heard much about that investigation — until yesterday. In a statement responding to the federal indictment, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services said that, after opening its probe of We Build The Wall last summer, “upon further investigation, the Department’s Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement subsequently referred the investigation to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
“At this time, the state investigation remains active,” the statement added.