The arrest of former Trump advisor Steve Bannon on Thursday in connection with a fraud scheme called We Build the Wall could have been predicted after a 2019 investigation by Phoenix New Times contributor Beau Hodai.
In fact, Glenn Spencer — an infamous Arizona nativist and amateur border enforcer with apparent ties to white nationalists — did predict it, as the article shows.
"If their ineptitude caused charges of fraud, that means a defense lawyer’s going to have to defend them,” Spencer, who was suspicious after being contacted by the Bannon-connected group, told New Times for the article. The case could be a “defense lawyer’s gold mine...." Spencer continued. "Did they know that it was impossible for them to build a wall on the border?”
On Thursday, the government alleged that We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, Bannon, and two other defendants "orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors, including donors in the Southern District of New York, in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign ultimately known as 'We Build The Wall' that raised more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States."
Kolfage falsely assured the public he wouldn't take "a penny in salary or compensation," and that 100 percent of the funds would "be used in the execution of our mission and purpose."
But Kolfage pilfered the donations, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars for his personal use, while Bannon received $1 million, covering hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own expenses, the indictment by the Southern District of New York U.S. Attorney states.
As Spencer suggested in New Times' story, the main problem with We Build the Wall's plan to build a border wall on private land was the lack of private land in which it could be done. The piece, which you can read here, examined We Build the Wall's activities, Kolfage, its fundraising, and its unfeasible promises. Hodai's investigation ended up in tiny Lochiel on Arizona's international border with Mexico, a town with seven residents that once had a U.S. Customs port of entry that closed in 1983.
He found that the negotiations with We Build the Wall in Lochiel bordered on ludicrous: A wall there might cover a mile of border without gaps if several property owners who weren't party to the negotiations eventually signed on. But the federal government also had an easement for the Border Patrol that made it unclear whether any private wall there could be allowed. Despite this, Kolfage claimed the group had raised $23 to $24 million from nearly 400,000 donors. We Build the Wall was created as a tax-free vessel to receive the funds.
Hodai followed up his March 2019 exposé with another story on We Build the Wall in May, this one focusing on the group's "broken love affair with New Mexico vigilantes."
"While most mass media was treating the We Build the Wall scheme like a credible construction effort, we reported skeptically, paying attention to glaring issues within the overt narrative," Hodai says. "This is why independent investigative reporting needs to be supported — by readers, and by publications."
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Some Arizona lawmakers were very excited about Kolfage and Bannon's program. More than a dozen Republican state senators and representatives introduced HB 2084 earlier this year to make it easier for We Build the Wall to build a wall by removing any red tape from state or local government. Before the state could assist what the Department of Justice says was a fraud, it stalled in March in the Senate.
The bill had followed a promise by House Majority leader Warren Petersen to assist the group.
"I will be introducing legislation next session to make sure that @WeBuildtheWall can erect border walls on private property in AZ without impediment from state or local government," Petersen tweeted in June 2019, three months after Hodai's article exposed the group as a possible fraud. "Their organization is making a real difference with the border crisis! All with private donations."