The co-founder of a fundraising group linked to Steve Bannon who vowed to help Donald Trump build a wall along the southern US border was sentenced Wednesday to four years and three months in prison for stealing hundreds of thousands of donor dollars.
Brian Kolfage, a decorated Air Force veteran who lost both legs and an arm in the Iraq War, had pleaded guilty to his role in siphoning We Build the Wall donations.
A co-defendant who also pleaded guilty, financier Andrew Badolato, was sentenced to three years in prison for his part in the plot. A third man involved in diverting funds from the project, Colorado businessman Tim Shea, will be sentenced in June.
Additionally, Kolfage and Badolato were ordered to pay $25 million to repay the victims.
Bannon, Trump’s former political adviser, was absent from the case. He was initially arrested aboard a luxury yacht and faced federal fraud charges along with other defendants, but was pardoned by Trump during his final hours in office.
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg last year filed new state charges against Bannon, who is awaiting a trial date. A presidential pardon applies only to federal and non-state crimes. Bannon called the case “preposterous”.
Trump has not forgiven Kolfage, Badolato, or Shea, leaving them to face years behind bars.
Prosecutors said the scheme was the work of Kolfage, who was the public face of a campaign that raised more than $25 million from donors across the country. He repeatedly assured the public that he would not take “a penny” from the campaign.
As the money poured into the lawsuit, Kolfage and his partner Shea approached Bannon and Badolato for help in setting up the nonprofit We Build the Wall, Inc. benefit, prosecutors said.
A Badolato attorney, Kelly Kramer, called Bannon “the leader and primary beneficiary” of the scheme, noting that his client was paid far less than his pardoned aide.
Although prosecutors acknowledged that Badolato was the least financially viable of the four defendants, they described him as the “liaison” between Kolfage and Bannon who helped direct payments between the two parties.
Kolfage, 41, told Judge Analisa Torres he was “sorry, disgusted, and humiliated.” He added that he had not anticipated the size of the donations they would receive for the cause and soon began to distance himself from his initial goal, which he said was to “bring the spotlight to the immigration system bankruptcy of the country”.
“I promised it wouldn’t benefit me personally and I broke that promise,” he said.
Torres noted that the defendants not only deceived their donors but also had a “chilling effect on civic engagement” by tarnishing the reputation of political fundraisers.
“The scammers responsible for We Build the Wall have harmed the political class,” he stressed.
Kolfage received more than $350,000 in donor funds, which he used for personal expenses such as boat payments, a luxury van, and cosmetic surgery, prosecutors said in a court filing.
Bannon was accused of receiving more than $1 million through another non-profit organization, and later secretly paying some of that money to Kolfage.
Badolato, 58, and Shea also stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from fundraisers, prosecutors added.
As part of their plea deal, Kolfage and Badolato agreed not to appeal a sentence within the agreed range: four to five years for Kolfage and three and a half to four years for Badolato.
A lawyer for Kolfage previously argued that his client shouldn’t go to jail due to his lack of a criminal record and severe disability.
We Build the Wall built sections of a border wall on private land, but the organization has since disappeared.