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Legal troubles continue to plague the viral crowdfunding campaign We Build the Wall (WBTW). The organization is now under criminal investigation in Florida, where it is registered as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit.
As first reported by DCReport, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed there is a criminal investigation into the organization. The department oversees Florida charities. It is not clear what precipitated the investigation.
WBTW founder and president Brian Kolfage Jr. denied that the organization was subject to a criminal inquiry to both DC Report and BuzzFeed News. Kolfage did not respond to follow-up inquiries from the two pointing out that Florida officials had confirmed the investigation in writing. On Twitter, he implied that the BuzzFeed story was “fake news.”
Ugh oh fake news @buzzfeed is at it again! Just like we embarrassed you last time we’ll do it again! Remember you can’t stop us, no one can! Get ready for wall #2 BAHHHAHAHA— Brian Kolfage (@BrianKolfage) August 7, 2019
Kolfage, a decorated Iraq war veteran and triple amputee, has made a handsome profit from websites that promote fake news and conspiracy theories. In December, he launched the WBTW GoFundMe with a $1 billion goal. The campaign quickly went viral; within weeks it had collected $20 million towards construction of the border wall.
Since then, WBTW has repeatedly been mired in legal troubles and controversy. Thus far, it has emerged from each relatively unscathed. The criminal inquiry is potentially a more serious matter.
Weeks after launching, WBTW announced that it would refund all donations received prior to January 11 if it did not reach its $1 billion goal, unless the donor informed GoFundMe they still wanted to donate. It continued raising money. Even after refunding some donations, to date it has raised more than $25 million from nearly 300,000 donors.
Over Memorial Day weekend, WBTW erected a half-mile stretch of barrier fencing in Sunland Park, New Mexico. It did so without obtaining the required permits, built a gate on federal land that blocked access to a dam managed by the U.S. portion of the International Boundary and Water Commission, and blocked the only public entrance to Monument One.
Also in May, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services announced that was investigating the group.
“In response to consumer complaints, including those referred by the Office of the Attorney General, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services has opened an investigation into this charity,” a department spokesperson told Miami-based WLRN. The investigation was based in part on complaints that WBTW solicited charitable donations before it had registered as a nonprofit, which is prohibited by law. It is not clear if the criminal investigation is related.
Just after midnight last night, Kolfage alluded to the investigation on Twitter, writing, “This is hilarious. The only democrat in the state of Florida working for the dept of agriculture received these complaints about @WeBuildtheWall. None are donors, one cites fake news, and all are democratic voters according to records. HAVE FUN!”
Florida Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried is a Democrat. The tweet linked to a document cloud containing three complaints about it raising funds without being a registered nonprofit. Those were allegedly sent to Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody, a Republican.
In June, BuzzFeed reported that landowner George Cudahy, who donated private property for the wall, was facing up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine for unauthorized construction of the gate, which federal authorities later ordered permanently open.
Last month, WBTW advisory board member Kris Kobach reportedly used an email list from the organization to solicit funds for his Kansas senate campaign without disclosing that it was paid for by WBTW. That prompted watchdog group Common Cause to file a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging Kobach, who also serves as the group’s legal counsel, violated federal elections law.
New: Kris Kobach is using the We Build The Wall nonprofit group, where he serves as general counsel, to raise money for his Senate campaign. Legal experts say he's likely violating campaign finance laws https://t.co/twIxQWNY6O— Lachlan Markay (@lachlan) August 2, 2019
Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program for Campaign Legal Center, told the Kansas City Star that the email “certainly looks like a violation of federal campaign finance law.”
“Corporations—including non-profit corporations like We Build the Wall—are barred from making contributions to campaigns, and from using corporate resources to raise money for candidates,” Fischer reportedly said. “This official We Build the Wall email solicitation appears to violate both the ban on corporations soliciting contributions to candidates, and likely results in a prohibited in-kind contribution to Kobach’s campaign.”
WBTW has not let these and other potential setbacks break its stride. On its GoFundMe page, it currently boasts of plans to build another portion of wall.
“We are now working on segment #2,” it says. Kolfage, who in July was named one of Time magazine’s 25 most influential people on the internet, has been mum on whether, in light of the issues in Sunland Park, they will seek permits for the next phase.
Its ongoing legal woes haven’t made an appreciable dent in public support for the campaign. Money continues pouring in; in the last 24 hours, WBTW has collected hundreds of dollars.
It remains to be seen whether the organization will emerge unscathed from the criminal investigation.
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Claire Goforth is a Jacksonville, Florida-based journalist covering politics, culture, justice, and unicorns. Her work has appeared in publications ranging from regional alt-weeklies to Al Jazeera.