Two of the men indicted with Steve Bannon years ago pleaded guilty on Thursday to allegations that the former White House chief strategist dodged through a pardon obtained from former President Donald Trump, his former boss.
Iraq War veteran Brian Kolfage and Bannon’s friend Andrew Badolato, who received no clemency from Trump, admitted that they conspired to defraud donors who shelled out money to We Build the Wall, a crowdfunding effort to build a barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border. They did not plead guilty to conspiring to commit money laundering, which was charged in their original indictment. But Kolfage did plead guilty to certain tax offenses with which he was separately charged in Florida.
U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres accepted Kolfage and Badolato’s pleas at a hearing on Thursday afternoon.
Kolfage, a 39-year-old Purple Heart recipient, said that he took medication for his amputations but was lucid to make his plea. His attorney Cesar De Castro agreed.
After telling the judge that he took large sums of money from We Build the Wall donors after asserting that he wouldn’t take a “penny,” Kolfage said: “I knew that what was doing was wrong and a crime.”
Badolato, a 57-year-old longtime associate of Bannon represented by attorney Michael Paul Heffernan, also made a similar statement in court, adding that he was “terribly sorry” for what he did and asking the court for mercy.
Since Trump pardoned Bannon on his last night in office, the guilty pleas leave only one criminal defendant left standing: Timothy Shea, who is slated to stand trial on May 16.
We Build the Wall, a 501(c)4 non-profit entity, claimed that “100% of your donations” of the $25 million raised would go toward construction, and if the campaign could not reach its goal, the charity would “refund every single penny.” Sometimes known as social welfare organizations, 501(c)4 organizations are sometimes called “dark money groups” in connection with political spending because of their lack of transparency. Prosecutors say that Bannon received more than $1 million and that Kolfage took $350,000, largely through “secret” $20,000 monthly payments. Kolfage also bought a yacht, a Range Rover SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, and cosmetic surgery with donors’ money, according to the indictment.
Prosecutors say that those payments expressly contradicted their promises on their website.
“These assurances included, among other things, written bylaws with conflict of interest provisions and compensation restrictions precluding insiders like Kolfage, among others, from improperly misappropriating donor funds, and a promise that ‘Kolfage will take no salary’ and ‘will personally not take a penny of compensation from these donations,'” the indictment states.
Kolfage echoed those claims on social media.
“All money donated to the [We Build the Wall] campaign goes directly to wall!!! Not anyone’s pocket,” he wrote. “I’m taking nothing! Zero.”
Prosecutors say that Kolfage even sent mass emails to his donors asking them to buy coffee from his unrelated business, claiming that it was the only way “he keeps his family fed and a roof over their head” because he was taking “no compensation” from We Build the Wall.
According to the indictment, Bannon and Badolato discussed in a text message exchange that this claim would help drive donations because it would “removes all self-interest taint” and “gives [B]rian Kolfage saint hood.”
The four men allegedly concealed the payments through a shell company under Shea’s control.
“They did so by using fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements, among other ways, to ensure, as Kolfage noted in a text message to Badolato, that his pay arrangement remained “confidential” and kept on a ‘need to know’ basis,” prosecutors wrote.
In another ruse, Kolfage directed Badolato to send payments to his spouse, and We Build the Wall issued a tax disclosure falsely characterizing that payment as being for “media,” according to the indictment.
According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Bannon and Badolato have had a “questionable” and nearly two-decade-long relationship. They participated in failed penny stock ventures and production of conservative documentaries, maintaining their relationship even during Bannon’s stint in the White House, the paper reported.
Though both pleaded guilty under statutes that theoretically could put them in prison for decades, their plea agreements calculate their sentencing guidelines ranges much lower. Kolfage’s goes to a little more than five years at the high end, and Badolato’s stipulates a little more than four years at the upper range. Judge Torres is not bound by the guidelines ranges stipulated in their plea agreements. Their sentencing date has been set for Sept. 6.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
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