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Guilty verdict in do-over trial on border wall-building fraud

Guilty verdict in do-over trial on border wall-building fraud

Jurors convicted Tim Shea of fleecing the charity he started with Steve Bannon

  • The border wall at Sunland Park, N.M.
    Anne Adrian/CC BY 2.0The border wall at Sunland Park, N.M.

A New York jury wasted little time before reaching a unanimous guilty verdict on Friday, convicting Colorado businessman Tim Shea on counts of fraud and conspiracy for his role in the sham charity We Build the Wall. 

Jurors began deliberations the previous afternoon, following two full days of trial testimony. 

Prosecutors originally brought the case back in 2020, indicting Shea and Steve Bannon, the former Trump campaign strategist, as well as Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage and venture capitalist Andrew Badolato.  

Two years after all four men pleaded not guilty, Shea was the last man standing in the original federal case, following guilty pleas from Kolfage and Badolato, and Bannon's presidential pardon from his erstwhile political ally. Shea originally went to trial on the three counts in the spring, but those proceedings ended in a mistrial thanks to a holdout juror.  

From its genesis, We Build the Wall promised donors that 100% of funds raised would go toward construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. It quickly raised some $25 million in private donations on GoFundMe but built a mere 3 miles of fencing.  

The rest, according to charging papers, lined the pockets of its founders. Prosecutors said Bannon and Kolfage alone used more than $1 million in We Build the Wall donations to pay for a boat, a 2018 Land Rover Range Rover, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery and other assets. 

Assistant U.S. Attorney Molly Bracewell told jurors during closing arguments that Shea and his partners never had any intention of adhering to their “powerful, compelling fundraising message" to donors that they would not take any salary or compensation. 

“I mean people are crazy," Shea wrote in a text message to Kolfage after roughly $17 million in donations flooded We Build the Wall's GoFundMe campaign in the first week of its December 2018 launch. "Who would throw money at something like this? At Christmas!” 

Bracewell said Shea and his We Build the Wall cohorts treated the fundraiser as a “bottomless piggybank they looted for whatever they wanted to do." 

Though Shea's wife held herself out on Twitter as CFO of We Build the Wall, she has not been charged. At trial, prosecutors showed bank records illustrating that she received money transferred through Tim Shea’s shell company, and quoted her as telling her We Build The Wall cohorts of the charity: “It’ll be a gold mine for sure." 

Evidence at trial showed how both Sheas also made thousands of dollars from We Build the Wall merchandise and also steered donor money into launching Trump-themed energy drink company, Winning Energy, which sells cans that boast “12 oz. of liberal tears.” 

Defense attorney John Meringolo insisted to jurors that Shea performed ample work for the campaign by helping to secure land where the wall could be built and by hiring security.  

In his closing Thursday, Meringolo remarked that, if his client had a flaw, it was that he was sloppy with his taxes and financial record. He also said evidence that his client did work and accumulated expenses that needed to be reimbursed was another reason to acquit. “There is a wall,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s reasonable doubt and that’s not guilty.” 

Shea was charged with counts of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and falsification of records. Each of the three criminal counts carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres set Shea's sentencing for Jan. 31, 2023. Later that year, Bannon faces a November 2023 trial where he must defend against state criminal charges related to We Build the Wall. Trump's pardon allowed to escape federal prosecution only. The former White House adviser case has denounced the case against him in Manhattan criminal court as “nothing more than a partisan political weaponization of the criminal justice system.”

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