NEW YORK - One is a triple-amputee Iraq war veteran who ran news sites stoking right-wing rage, often with exaggerated stories. Another owns a company that sells Donald Trump-themed energy drinks. And the third is an ex-columnist for Breitbart and an entrepreneur who has left a trail of failed businesses.
The men charged along with former White House strategist Steve Bannon in a scheme to skim hundreds of thousands of dollars from a crowd-funded project to build a border wall came together through a shared devotion to Trump and a rich, sometimes checkered, history of trying to make money off his political movement.
Prosecutors say their promises not to take even a penny from the more than $25 million in donations turned out to be lies, allowing them to make such purchases as a luxury Range Rover, a fishing boat, home renovations and cosmetic surgery.
Some court observers believe at least some of the participants believed they could get away with it because their man was in the White House.
“This cast of characters was using Bannon as a front to get the people behind them,” said David S. Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami. “Him thinking he wasn’t going to get caught — and if he did, that he would be pardoned — may have factored a little bit into why he was involved.”
At the head of the We Build The Wall venture was 38-year-old veteran Brian Kolfage of Miramar Beach, Florida, who since losing both legs and an arm in a rocket attack in Iraq has become a conservative activist, motivational speaker and constant presence on social media, haranguing the left, praising Trump and provoking others.
“We need to elect stone-cold killers,” he posted on Twitter last month. “We will soon have a revolution in this country.”
Hours after his arrest Thursday, he took to Facebook, portraying the case as an underhanded attempt to kill Trump’s reelection chances.
“Democrats love a good political witch hunt before the elections,” he wrote.
Bannon picked up on that charge on his politics podcast, “War Room,” on Friday, hardly sounding like someone who only hours earlier was charged with fraud and money laundering, crimes that carry up to 20 years in prison.
“This was to stop and intimidate people that want to talk about the wall. This is to stop and intimidate people that have President Trump’s back on building the wall,” Bannon said. “This is a political hit job."
As for Kolfage, he called him “an American hero.”
A serial entrepreneur, Kolfage started a string of ventures and side businesses over the years. He has raised money for efforts to help wounded veterans and, after one of his news sites was shut down, rallied supporters to Fight4FreeSpeech. This year, he launched a company to buy up and distribute N95 masks, solicited donations for a lawsuit against “the victims” of Black Lives Matter protesters and called for a boycott of the NFL and NBA over their embrace of the movement.
“He has a knack for seeing what is missing from someone’s project or company and helping them fill that gap,” said Dustin Stockton, a partner in his mask company and We Build the Wall who was not charged on Thursday. “Despite his significant disabilities, he is upbeat and optimistic about the future, which people find inspiring.”
Stockton said federal agents served him and his wife with subpoenas and with warrants for their cellphones. He would not comment on the case beyond that.
Another partner charged Thursday, 49-year-old Timothy Shea of Castle Rock, Colorado, owns an energy drink company called Winning Energy whose cans bear a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain 12 ounces of “liberal tears.”
The third indicted partner, Andrew Badolato, 56 of Sarasota, Florida, describes himself as a venture capitalist on his personal website and a “hobbyist conservative” enjoying a “new lease on life after suffering a major heart attack in December 2014 and being brought back to life.”
Bannon has known Badolato for years, joining forces nearly two decades ago in a publicly traded nasal spray company called SinoFresh Healthcare that eventually got tangled up in a legal dispute about corporate funds and other issues. The two also worked on films together, reportedly including planned documentaries on Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin.
Badolato touts his contributions to Breitbart News and suggests that some of his articles "were responsible for one of the largest national political narrative shifts of the election year.”
We Build the Wall had been under criminal investigation in Florida since last year, after authorities received complaints from donors, and officials there said they referred their findings to the FBI.
“This fraud needs to be shut down and audited immediately,” one complainant wrote, according to records released by the state.
Kolfage called the state inquiry “hilarious” on Twitter. “None are donors,” he wrote, referring to the complainants, “one cites fake news, and all are democratic voters according to records. HAVE FUN!”
Attorney General William Barr said he had been made aware of the investigation of Bannon months ago but had not received regular briefings.
Donald Trump Jr. once praised We Build The Wall as an “amazing” grassroots campaign. But the president on Thursday said he didn’t like the crowd-funding effort to build a private wall and considers such matters the role of government.
In a tweet last month, Trump said the project involved a “tiny” stretch of a wall in a tricky area and “was only done to make me look bad.”
The organizers solicited donations as recently as days before the indictment, riling up Trump supporters on a Facebook page and promoting the wall as a solution to drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
Some followers voiced skepticism, complaining that enough progress on the wall was being made and that they had not received their purchase of autographed steel bollards the group advertised.
“What’s the hold up?” Dan Mineart asked under one post. “It seems like ‘build the wall’ was just a catchy campaign slogan to fire everyone up. It ain’t happening.”