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Exclusive: Private GoFundMe border wall effort now under criminal investigation

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Grant Stern
Grant Stern

Florida officials are conducting a criminal investigation of WeBuildTheWall Inc., a group which says it will build privately the wall on the Mexican border touted by Donald Trump. The organization has raised more than $20 million through a GoFundMe campaign amid questions about how $1.7 million was spent.

We reported in June that WeBuildTheWall Inc. was under civil investigation by Florida regulators concerning possible misuse of donations.

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Brian Kolfage Jr., the wall organization’s president, asserted in an email “there’s no criminal investigation.” Kolfage had no further comment after being advised that Florida officials had put in writing that a criminal investigation is underway and confirmed it in an interview.

The wall group has erected a half-mile segment of fencing, but work stopped temporarily when local officials said the project violated local zoning laws.

Last month, this reporter sent Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs a public-records request for “copies of any notices, subpoenas, or any other records pertinent to the investigation of WeBuildTheWall Inc.” The agency oversees Florida charities.

“Your public records request was forwarded to the Office of General Counsel for handling,” the department’s senior attorney Rob F. Summers wrote late last week. “The records you requested are exempt from disclosure pursuant to s. 119.071(2)(c)1., F.S. (Active Criminal Investigation).”

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When asked for details, a department spokesman tersely wrote, “We cannot comment on ongoing investigations.” The spokesperson cited the same statute in declining to expand on the letter revealing the criminal probe.

That means that the criminal investigation into the wall effort is now in the hands of the Florida Office of Agricultural Law Enforcement.

Trump Jr. Appearance

Just 10 days ago, WeBuildTheWall hosted a three-day political event in New Mexico, where it has already erected a short section of fence. The event featured a speech by Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son.

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Former White House senior adviser Steve Bannon attended the event, as did former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), and the president of Citizens United David Bossie.

Bossie’s appearance was curious since, in May, the Trump 2020 campaign seemed to distance itself from Bossie and his organization, which promotes dark money in politics. However, since then the Trump campaign has indicated it is seeking big money and dark money.

WeBuildTheWall’s filings with Florida regulators demonstrated that it materially misrepresented the composition of its board of directors. It also held a raffle with a mandatory entry fee. State lawyers noted that the mandatory fee appears to violate Florida’s anti-gambling law.

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Kolfage’s wall group has erected a half-mile segment of fencing on what it says is private land in the town of Sunland Park, N.M. That work stopped temporarily when city officials determined that the project violated local zoning laws.

Mayor Receives Death Threats

After being told to stop work, WeBuildTheWall used its social media accounts to bully local officials. Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea said he got death threats.

Wall construction resumed after George Cudahy, the landowner, told city officials he just wanted it put up some lights and poles. The city acquiesced with his request.

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But when city officials realized the wall project had resumed they filed a criminal complaint. Cudahy failed to appear in local court for a hearing on the complaint, which could result in a criminal record and a $500 fine.

The project also includes an encroachment on federal land. The International Boundary and Water Commission ordered Kolfage’s organization to act, but nothing happened.

The commission said in a statement that WeBuildTheWall “built a gate on federal land in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso, Texas, without authority, and then locked the gate closed on June 6, 2019. The private gate blocks a levee road owned by the U.S. Government. After repeated requests to unlock and open the private gate, the United States Section of the International Boundary and Water Commission (USIBWC), accompanied by two uniformed law enforcement officers from the Dona Ana County Sheriff’s Office, removed the private lock, opened the gate, and locked the gate open pending further discussions with We Build the Wall.”

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Part of the Wall in Mexico

The Mexican government says the wall, or at least part of it, is on Mexican soil.

Surveyors sent by the Mexican government determined that part of the fence construction sits on the wrong side of the border. Mexican officials said the encroaching materials will have to be removed, which may prove difficult to accomplish.

The Trump administration hasn’t built a single foot of border fencing after 30 months of riling up its supporters with claims that the wall was vital to national security.

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The latest estimate is that the proposed Mexico border wall would cost nearly $60 billion. That is 3,000 times as much money as the organzation said it has raised.

A wall cannot be built along signification sections of the border with Mexico because of terrain issues, according to federal agencies and others who have studied Trump’s idea.

Trump, who ran for office saying Mexico would pay for the wall, failed to get any money from Congress in his first two years in office, when Republicans controlled both chambers. Democrats, who now control the House, say they will never fund Trump’s wall.

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The Washington Post reported that Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) held up one of Trump’s appointees for a post that requires Senate confirmation to encourage the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to hire Fisher Industries to build Trump’s unfunded Mexican border wall.

Fisher Industries, a North Dakota-based company, built the half-mile fencing for Kolfage’s wall group. It’s unknown if WeBuildTheWall has anything to do with the senator’s efforts.

Kobach’s Role

The organization’s general counsel is Kris Kobach, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate in Kansas who also sits on the wall group’s board as a director. As Kansas secretary of state, Kobach pushed to remove 20,000 voters from the election rolls, sought strict voter identification requirements and government registration of Muslims. Trump considered naming him “immigration czar.”

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Kobach, who as a Kansas state official worked to purge voter rolls over minor issues, appears to have violated multiple federal and state election laws by using the wall group’s donor list to solicit campaign contributions. Congress prohibits partisan political activity by charities.

That use of the organization’s mailing list to solicit campaign donations promoted Common Cause to file a complaint with the campaign solicitation the Federal Election Commission.

Kobach is paid for his role as a lawyer for the group and serving on its board of director as of July 15. That came months after the group claimed he was serving as a director even though the state had not been notified promptly as state law requires.

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WeBuildTheWall’s effort to build a privately financed Mexican border wall could result in serious consequences for failing to abide the letter of the law in its home state, where the disabled veteran Brian Kolfage is incorporated and operates his organization out of a post-office box store in a Panama City Beach strip mall.

Filing false intentionally statements to Florida’s regulator is a third-degree felony and a conviction could result in up to five years in prison.

We asked Kolfage; newly named corporate treasurer Dustin Stockton; his spokeswoman, the former Breitbart personality Jennifer Lawrence; and his lawyer Todd McMurtry of Hemmer, DeFrank, Wessels about the criminal investigation.

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Only Kolfage responded. But he did not respond to questions about whether WeBuildTheWall Inc. or any of its officials were helping Fisher Industries get contracts from the Trump administration.

Kolfage also did not answer when asked about Kobach’s apparently illegal use of WeBuildTheWall donor list for his political campaign.

Featured image: Brian Kolfage, Kimberly Guilfoyle and Donald Trump Jr. arrive at an airport in El Paso, Texas, July 26. (Instagram)

*Correction: WeBuildtheWall Inc. has tax-exempt status under section 501(c)4 of the IRS code as a social welfare organization. So-called C4 organizations are not classified as charities, and donations are not tax-deductible. Earlier versions of this story erroneously referred to the group as a charity.

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