Leader of push to fund Trump's border wall pleads guilty to fraud, tax charges

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United States Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage Jr attends Veterans Day parade on 5th Avenue in New York in 2014

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A decorated U.S. Air Force veteran who helped lead a fundraising campaign to build former President Donald Trump's promised wall along the U.S.-Mexican border pleaded guilty on Thursday to conspiring to defraud donors.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Brian Kolfage told prospective donors he would "not take a penny" as he raised more than $25 million for the "We Build the Wall" campaign, yet took more than $350,000 and spent money on a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry and cosmetic surgery.

Kolfage, who also pleaded guilty to three tax charges, created the private campaign in December 2018, 14 years after losing his legs and right hand in a rocket attack in Iraq.

The Miramar Beach, Florida, resident had led the fundraising push alongside former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who was also charged in August 2020.

Bannon's case was dismissed after Trump granted him a presidential pardon during the final hours of his presidency.

At a remote hearing on Thursday, Kolfage said he told potential donors that their money would be used exclusively to build a wall, but instead kept a large sum for himself and concealed it from authorities to avoid paying taxes.

"I knew what I was doing was wrong and a crime," Kolfage told U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres.

A co-defendant, Andrew Badolato, also pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy on Thursday.

Kolfage could face 4-1/4 to 5-1/4 years in prison under recommended federal guidelines, while Badolato faces 41 to 51 months. Sentencings for both were scheduled for September.

The final defendant, Timothy Shea, has pleaded not guilty. His lawyer said this month that Shea would exercise "his constitutional right to a fair trial."

In a separate case, Bannon was charged in November with two counts of contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena issued by a committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Bannon has pleaded not guilty to the misdemeanor counts.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New YorkEditing by Will Dunham and Matthew Lewis)

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