We Build the Wall began as a GoFundMe campaign. Its goal was to raise funds to build the “Trump Wall” along the U.S./Mexico border. Eventually, it evolved into a 501(c)(4) nonprofit—We Build the Wall, Inc.—which is now worth $25 million. Mr. Bannon serves as chairman of the group’s advisory board, and supposedly allocated $350,000 to We Build the Wall’s founder and president, Brian Kolfage. Mr. Kolfage (along with two other officers, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea) is also being charged with wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
You might be asking, “How does any of this constitute fraud?” According to prosecutors, We Build the Wall promised donors that “100% of the funds raised… will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose,” and that its organizers “do not take a penny in salary or compensation.”
Yet the federal attorney’s accusations appear to be totally groundless. According to a 2018 report from The Hill, The assurance that all proceeds would go to building the wall was made on the long-defunct GoFundMe page, not by the existing nonprofit.
The GoFundMe was established in 2018 with the goal of raising $1 billion to build a wall on the southern border, promised that “100% of your donations will go to the Trump Wall. If for ANY reason we don’t reach our goal we will refund your donation.” That goal was not met by its January 2019 deadline. So, Mr. Kolfage immediately established the 501(c)(4) organization, We Build a Wall, Inc.
At the time, a GoFundMe spokesman announced:
This means all donors will receive a refund. If a donor does not want a refund, and they want their donation to go to the new organization, they must proactively elect to redirect their donation to that organization. If they do not take that step, they will automatically receive a full refund.
In other words, the original monies raised by the GoFundMe campaign were either returned to donors or—if the donors so chose—handed over to We Build the Wall, Inc. Neither Mr. Bannon nor Mr. Kolfage had a hand in reimbursing donors; that was handled entirely by GoFundMe. Therefore, any donations received by the 501(c)(4) were raised under separate terms from those received through the GoFundMe.
Indeed, the nonprofit made no assurance that 100 percent of profits would go to building the wall. Nowhere on the organization’s website does it boast of an all-volunteer staff.
It is true that We Build the Wall, Inc.’s bylaws preclude the president from receiving a salary. Yet, according to section 5.6 of the organization’s bylaws,
Directors shall not receive salaries for their services, but by resolution of the Board of Directors, expenses of attendance, if any, may be allowed for attendance at any regular or special meetings of the Board… Nothing in this section 5.6 will prevent an Officer, who is also a Director, from receiving compensation for performing his or her duties as an Officer of the Corporation.
Mr. Bannon—whose net worth is estimated at $48 million—may, then, have legally received compensation for performing his duties as Chairman of the Board of Advisors.
In their press release announcing the arrests of four We Build the Wall leaders, the U.S. Attorney’s Office Southern District of New York accused Mr. Kolfage of illegally using funds to “fund his lavish lifestyle,” including “home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.” Yet Mr. Bannon is only accused of allocating Mr. Kolfage $350,000. That may sound like a large sum, but it couldn’t possibly account for even the cost of the boat.
In 2019, the fact-checking site Snopes investigated these same claims and could find no evidence that Mr. Kolfage had improperly spent the nonprofit’s money. They focused specifically on the charge that Mr. Kolfage had used donations to purchase a yacht. According to Mr. Kolfage, the vessel was worth $675,000: almost twice the amount he is supposed to have embezzled. Mr. Kolfage, who is independently wealthy, also told Snopes that he had sold another boat the previous summer—six months before the GoFundMe campaign was even established. The proceeds from that sale, he suggested, went towards the purchase of his new yacht.
Of course, the U.S. Attorney may have new evidence that Mr. Kolfage misappropriated funds. But, if so, why not mention them? Why did they simply drag up old charges that have been thoroughly litigated and debunked?
I am not given to conspiracy theories. Yet the flimsy pretext on which Mr. Bannon and his associates are being charged cannot help but raise a red flag. Is it any coincidence that these indictments are being served just weeks after rumors began to swirl that Mr. Bannon is returning to the White House?
As the chief architect of the President’s 2016 victory, progressives and Never-Trump Republicans across the country are loathe to see Mr. Bannon return to the campaign trail. Even if these charges are eventually thrown out—and how could they not be?—the U.S. Attorney for Southern New York will entangle Mr. Bannon in a legal battle that may consume the final three months before the election.
As has been noted before, federal prosecutors have become little more than political hacks who seek promotion by doing the bidding of partisan officials. The current U.S. Attorney for Southern New York is Audrey Strauss, a Democrat. She was promoted after her predecessor, Geoffrey Berman—also a Democrat—was fired by President Trump at the behest of Attorney General William Barr. The Administration feared that Mr. Berman was initiating politically motivated prosecutions against high-ranking Republicans, including former New York mayor Rudy Guliani.
The President’s critics accused Mr. Barr of trying to silence the Attorney’s office, as it had been leading high-profile investigations into Trump allies. Mr. Barr dismissed this claim, saying: “Your statement also wrongly implies that your continued tenure in the office is necessary to ensure that cases now pending in the Southern District of New York are handled appropriately. This is obviously false,” Mr. Barr insisted. That seems pretty clear, given that Ms. Strauss—Mr. Berman’s own deputy—was allowed to succeed him. Yet this may simply mean the anti-Trump racket in Southern New York will continue its campaign against the President uninterrupted.
Is it inconceivable that powerful New York Democrats in the legal profession would be conspiring to handicap the President’s chances of reelection just as he begins to close the gap in the polls? Is it not possible that they would want to prevent Mr. Bannon—the principal engineer of the President’s astonishing victory in 2016—from returning to the helm of the Trump campaign?
We reserve final judgment until the U.S. Attorney hands down the actual evidence against the leaders of Build the Wall, Inc. But, if this is the extent of their case, these are clearly trumped-up charges handed down by a nakedly political prosecution. Its aim does not appear to be the service of justice, but to handicap President Trump’s reelection campaign. A conviction is unnecessary; so long as the trial lasts through November 3, they will have achieved their goal.
If no real evidence of fraud and laundering appears, the President should not hesitate to pardon Mr. Bannon and his associates, and to fire Ms. Strauss for using her office to advance a political agenda.
The politicization of America’s attorneys and judges have nearly discredited our justice system. The 2020 election must not be decided by Audrey Strauss and the liberal, New York legal establishment.
[Photo credit: Getty Images]