Founder of the We Build The Wall group linked to Steve Bannon is sentenced to 4 years
NEW YORK — The co-founder of a fundraising group linked to Steve Bannon that promised to help Donald Trump construct a wall along the southern U.S. border was sentenced to four years and three months in prison on Wednesday for stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from donors.
Brian Kolfage, a decorated Air Force veteran who lost both of his legs and an arm in the Iraq War, previously pleaded guilty for his role in siphoning donations from the We Build the Wall campaign.
A co-defendant, financier Andrew Badolato, was also sentenced to three years for aiding the effort. He had also pleaded guilty. A third man involved in siphoning funds from the wall project, Colorado businessman Tim Shea, won't be sentenced until June.
Kolfage and Badolato were also ordered to pay $25 million in restitution to the victims.
Absent from the case was Bannon, Trump's former top political adviser. He was initially arrested aboard a luxury yacht and faced federal fraud charges along with the other men, but Trump pardoned him during his final hours in office.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg brought new, state charges against Bannon last year. He is awaiting trial. Presidential pardons apply only to federal crimes, not state offenses. Bannon has called the case "nonsense."
Kolfage, Badolato and Shea were not pardoned by Trump, leaving them to face the prospect of years in prison.
How the $25 million scheme worked
Prosecutors said the scheme was hatched by Kolfage, who served as the public face of the effort as it raised more than $25 million from donors across the country. He repeatedly assured the public he would "not take a penny" from the campaign.
As money poured into the cause, Kolfage and his partner, Shea, turned to Bannon and Badolato for help creating a nonprofit, We Build the Wall, Inc. The four defendants then took steps to funnel the money to themselves for personal gain, prosecutors said.
An attorney for Badolato, Kelly Kramer, described Bannon as "a leader and primary beneficiary" of the scheme, noting that his own client received a much smaller payout than the pardoned associate.
While prosecutors acknowledged that Badolato profited the least of the four defendants, they described him as the "connective tissue" between Kolfage and Bannon, helping to direct the kickbacks between the two parties.
Kolfage tells judge that he's "remorseful, disgusted, humiliated"
Kolfage, 41, told Judge Analisa Torres that he was "remorseful, disgusted, humiliated." He said he had not anticipated the scale of donations that would flood in for the cause and soon found himself drifting away from his initial goal, which he said was "putting a spotlight on the country's broken immigration system."
"I made a promise not to personally benefit and I broke that promise," he said.
Torres said the defendants not only cheated their donors but contributed to a "chilling effect on civic participation" by tarnishing the reputation of political fundraising.
"The fraudsters behind We Build The Wall injured the body politic," she said.
Kolfage received more than $350,000 in donor funds, which he spent on personal expenses that included boat payments, a luxury SUV and cosmetic surgery, prosecutors said in a court filing.
Bannon was accused of taking more than $1 million through a separate nonprofit, then secretly paying some of it back to Kolfage.
Badolato, 58, and Shea also stole hundreds of thousands from fundraisers as well, prosecutors said.
As part of a plea deal, Kolfage and Badolato agreed not to challenge a sentence within the agreed-upon range: between four to five years for Kolfage and 3 1/2 to four years for Badolato.
An attorney for Kolfage previously argued that his client should avoid prison time given his lack of criminal history and severe disability.
Some sections of a border barrier were built by We Build the Wall on private lands, but the nonprofit is now defunct.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.