After once claiming two criminal cases against him were politically motivated, Brian Kolfage on Thursday admitted in court that he conspired to secretly take more than $350,000 of the millions of dollars he’d received in donations to build a private border wall.
The founder of the viral campaign We Build the Wall agreed to forfeit more than $17.8 million and also pleaded guilty to fraud as part of an agreement with the federal prosecutors he’d previously called “corrupt ass holes.”
“I induced donors to opt to the new project in part through the misrepresentation that I would not profit from We Build the Wall or take a salary or compensation,” Kolfage said, reading from a prepared statement. “I knowingly and willingly conspired to receive money from the donations.”
Kolfage publicly promised he wouldn’t take money from the online fundraiser and non-profit but, instead, prosecutors say he and others at We Build The Wall used fake invoices and vendors to siphon hundreds of thousands of dollars for themselves.
During the videoconference hearing in the Southern District of New York, Kolfage also admitted in the statement to submitting a false 2019 tax return, in which he failed to disclose money he had taken from the supposed nonprofit organization.
According to a plea agreement, Kolfage will also be required to pay at least $143,003 in unpaid taxes.
“I filed the tax return electronically,” he said. “I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime.”
As part of his plea agreement, Kolfage agreed to serve a sentence of 51 to 63 months in prison, as well as pay a fine of $20,000 to $200,000 on top of the $17.8 million in forfeiture. Andrew Badolato, another We Build the Wall employee, also entered a guilty plea to a count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud.
The judge, however, has yet to approve the agreement. Under current sentencing guidelines, Kolfage could face a sentence of up to 46 years in prison for the charges.
Steve Bannon, an advisor to former President Donald Trump, also faced fraud charges and allegations of secretly taking $1 million from the border wall fundraising project, but was pardoned by Trump during the last hours of his administration.
According to the plea agreement, Kolfage’s organization We Build The Wall will also be required to withdraw claims to the money raised by the organization, including more than $1 million held in a bank account.
The government can also seize other property from Kolfage as a substitute for the $17 million he’s agreed to pay, or items paid for by the money taken from the donations. In a previous indictment, Kolfage was accused of using the donations from We Build The Wall to pay for home renovations, an SUV, a golf cart, cosmetic surgery, and payments for a boat.
Last week, Kolfage’s wife noted on Instagram they were selling their Range Rover.
Thursday’s comments in court were a completely different tone from the Iraq War veteran, who had often taken a defiant and insulting stance against people who questioned his integrity or challenged his narrative of selfless service.
After suffering devastating injuries that caused him to lose his legs and a hand during his time in the military, Kolfage made a living launching websites and social media pages that peddled misinformation, ultimately leading to him being permanently banned from Facebook.
In 2018, he launched an online fundraiser to build a private border wall along the southern border as then-president Donald Trump fired up supporters about the need for a physical barrier to protect the country. Kolfage claimed the money he raised would be donated to the federal government but, after it became clear that money couldn’t be earmarked specifically for a border barrier, Kolfage founded We Build the Wall, promising to take over construction.
The effort lured a list of conservative figures including Donald Trump Jr., who made a personal appearance at the site of one of the construction projects in Sunland Park, New Mexico, to help raise more money for the organization.
The group partnered with Fisher Sand & Gravel, a construction company, for the New Mexico wall and a second wall in Mission, Texas, where the company said We Build the Wall pulled out suddenly after paying only $1.5 million of an $8 million project.
Throughout the construction projects, Kolfage launched baseless claims against city officials, federal entities, and a butterfly sanctuary that raised objections, including claims that the construction occurred without required permits or studies showing the environmental impacts.
Kolfage also made false, fearmongering claims, including that immigrants infected with Ebola had attempted to cross the border, as he made public pleas for more donations to We Build the Wall. (The Ebola claim was refuted by officials repeatedly.)
In the Sunland Park project, for example, Kolfage claimed on social media that the proposed wall met all necessary paperwork requirements, while simultaneously claiming that construction was hurried along during a three-day weekend to catch city officials off guard.
Kolfage continued to make similar claims during his federal trial.
“The SDNY and corrupt DOJ wants to force me to shut up and probably take a plea deal by bringing more bogus charges,” Kolfage wrote in an Instagram post last year. “NOT A CHANCE. These corrupt ass holes are coming for anyone who supported Trump at a high level.”
While Kolfage entered a plea of guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and wire fraud in connection to filing a false tax return, prosecutors pointed out that in a recent article this month, Kolfage claimed he was pleading guilty because “They Michael Flynn’d me.”
The comment was in reference to the former Trump administration national security adviser who pleaded guilty in federal court to lying about his contacts with Russian officials. Flynn was later pardoned by Trump in the last weeks of his administration.
On Thursday, Judge Analisa Torres pressed Kolfage about his comments.
“Are you pleading guilty voluntarily?” she asked
“Yes, your honor,” Kolfage said.
“And you’re pleading guilty because you’re guilty,” she said.
“Yes, your honor.”