Customs and Border Protection and the U.S. Border Patrol considered accepting sections of privately constructed U.S.-Mexico border wall from We Build the Wall, the GoFundMe-launched project whose leadership is now facing federal indictments.
We Build the Wall, a campaign for hardcore xenophobes to crowdfund private construction of Donald Trump’s promised border wall, transitioned to nonprofit status and has now reportedly raised around $25 million. It is in serious trouble. Project leaders including Steve Bannon, Andrew Badolato, Brian Kolfage, and Timothy Shea are facing federal charges of conspiring to commit wire fraud and money laundering in New York for allegedly misappropriating well over $1 million in donations to pad their own pockets. But according to a Monday report in the Nation, leaked Department of Homeland Security documents show that CBP leadership was so excited about We Build the Wall’s offer to donate some of the wall they actually did build that they scheduled a meeting in November 2019 to discuss it.
According to the Nation, the meeting focused on how CBP could use obscure procedures to accept a half-mile section of wall constructed by the group in Sunland Park, New Mexico, with attendees including CBP Deputy Commissioner Robert Perez. The agency also provided We Build the Wall with the results of an assessment they had carried out on that section of wall, apparently to speed along the process of actually acquiring it.
The document obtained by the Nation shows that CBP had previously had an “overall positive meet and greet” with the group in September 2019; it also conveys that officials were eager to move forward:
USBP [United States Border Patrol] representatives outlined the results of the operational assessment that was conducted on the project and identified some areas of concern and other approaches USBP takes when undertaking similar projects. WBTW representatives asked for clarification on what a donation offer would need to look like and whether CPB would be amenable to acceptance if an offer were made. Deputy Commissioner Perez expressed that CBP is interested in exploring all available options if an offer were made. WBTW was provided with CBP’s Barrier Donation Checklist.
The assessment completed by CBP shows that the contractor hired to build the Sunland Park wall, Fisher Industries, did not have “consistent” performance despite “stakeholder interest has been driven largely by... claims that they can do this work better/faster/cheaper.” Fisher Industries is owned by Tommy Fisher, another Trump booster and We Build the Wall promoter, and has scored $1.7 billion in other federal wall-building contracts.
CBP wrote that Fisher Industries’ “inflated” claims included promises to panel 2,200 feet of wall in three to four days (it took eight 24-hour workdays) and overstated excavator productivity. Other problems included that the wall was not, in fact, on the U.S.-Mexico border:
The barrier is not on the border. Wherever possible, CBP emplaces the barrier within three feet of the international boundary to ensure a physical impediment is encountered before meaningful entry can be made. Work was clearly completed on the south side, from the south side. Such work could not be accomplished if CBP’s alignment requirements were met.
We Build the Wall’s wall was only 18 feet high, while CBP estimated it needed to be 30 feet high, and some components were installed on the southern side, potentially exposing them to vandalism. The group also failed to conduct drainage or hydrology studies, and CBP didn’t have any information on the security, “data storage, data type, image format, and transmission” of security cameras installed. We Build the Wall had also promised donors they could watch those camera feeds in realtime.
For any such donation to go through, the document obtained by the Nation states, CBP would have to review We Build the Wall’s work to ensure that it was actually built to the stated specifications or whether it was actually up to operational standards. Officials also seemed to express unease about the group’s plans for further expansions in Anapra, as it would be close to Mount Cristo Rey, which is a historic and sacred site. CBP indicated that accepting such a donation would require consultation with New Mexico historic preservation officials and indigenous tribes, and the agency might not be able to evade the mandatory environmental assessments required of all major federal projects just by claiming it was built by someone else.
“If DHS/CBP were to engage in a [National Environmental Policy Act] analysis of the proposed construction, due to the cultural sensitivity of the Mount Cristo Rey site and likely controversy, the project would likely require a full Environmental Impact Statement, as opposed to an Environmental Assessment,” the agency wrote.
The Department of Justice indictment against We Build the Wall’s leadership alleges that Bannon, Badolato, and Shea used their portion of the misappropriated funds for “travel, hotels, consumer goods and personal credit card debts.” The DOJ claims that Kolfage, who had promised not to take a salary nor accept “a penny of compensation” for his role in the project, actually took a secret $100,000 upfront payment with $20,000 extra per month when it converted to nonprofit status. The indictment says Kolfage used those funds to pay for “home renovations, payments towards a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt,” among other purchases.
Bannon, Badolato, Kolfage, and Shea could face a maximum sentence of 20 years of prison for each of the two conspiracy charges.