Winning is everything in Trump world, and the winner in the border wall fundraising scandal is a contractor who has ended up with more than $1.7 billion in federal contracts.
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon is said by prosecutors to have pocketed only a relatively modest $1 million. Brian Kolfage, who launched the “We Build the Wall” effort on GoFundMe allegedly got less than half that.
Kolfage had pledged he would “not take a penny” and Bannon had declared himself “a volunteer.” Both now face fraud and money-laundering charges that could result in serious time.
But even if Bannon and Kolfage had pocketed all of the $27 million raised on GoFundMe, it would be chump change compared to what Tommy Fisher of Fisher Industries stands to make. And he does not seem to be in any immediate danger of being arrested.
That puts him ahead of not only the We Build the Wall gang, but also his brothers, both of whom have done time for unrelated crimes. David Fisher went to prison for five years in a 2005 child pornography case. One victim was a 10-year-old girl.
Michael Fisher served three years after pleading guilty to tax evasion in 2009. He was CEO of the North Dakota-based, family-owned company at the time and had diverted funds to cover personal expenses such as private plane travel and a $38,000 Disney cruise. He also paid what was supposedly a $10,000 monthly consultant fee to his mother, but was actually a way of getting cash to David, the sex offender.
Court papers in the tax case mention Tommy, but he was not charged and he took Michael’s place as the head of the company. Records on the website Violations Tracker, run by non-profit The Corporate Research Project, indicate that since 2000 Fisher Industries has paid $1,812,620 in fines for tax, safety, environmental, and discrimination infractions. There also was a sexual harassment suit.
As he sought to make the company grow, Tommy Fisher cultivated a relationship with North Dakota Rep. Kevin Cramer, an early Trump supporter best known for his 2017 critique of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s attire at the new president’s first joint session of Congress.
Fisher contributed at least $24,000 to Cramer’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. Cramer made Fisher his guest at the 2018 State of the Union Address. He also began pushing for Fisher to get some of the billions of dollars in contracts open for bidding as Trump pushed to build his border wall.
The border wall effort is financed with Defense Department and Homeland Security funds and administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is reported to have initially taken a dim view of Fisher Industries’ record and abilities.
Tommy Fisher was getting nowhere. He was seeking to change that when he signed on with Bannon and Kolfage to build a half mile of wall on private land in Sunland Park, Texas, with the GoFundMe contributions.
“We’re hoping this spurs the federal government,” Fisher said as he sat with Bannon and Kolfage at a three-day “Wall-a-Thon” at the project’s site.
Kolfage had also been a guest at a State of the Union address, invited by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords of Arizona. He is a combat veteran who lost both legs and part of his right arm to a rocket in Iraq and Giffords had met him before she was herself grievously wounded in a mass shooting. She had asked him how he coped with his injuries.
“I told her you have to put things in perspective,” he later told the Tucson Sentinel. “There’s always a worse case and if you can just realize that and be happy you’re alive you can conquer pretty much anything.”
Giffords’ injuries in the subsequent shooting were such that she concluded she could not continue effectively in Congress no matter how strong her will. One of her very last official acts was to invite Kolfage to hear President Obama’s report to both houses of Congress. Kolfage’s wife came, and brought flowers for Giffords.
Somehow, Kolfage went on to become a kind of right-wing internet hustler, racking up clicks with news that truly was fake, posting Photoshopped images such as Obama with a supposed mistress and Hillary Clinton supposedly being led away in handcuffs. He started a GoFundMe page to bankroll a mentoring program for Wounded Warriors, raising more than $15,000, which he said was spent traveling to various military medical facilities. (BuzzFeed reported that none of the facilities had any record of him visiting.)
In 2018, Kolfage started a new GoFundMe campaign, We Build The Wall. He originally hoped to raise $1 billion to give to “our president” towards a border barrier. But he managed only a fraction of that.
Bannon joined the effort as “chairman of the advisory board” and publicly declared that Kolfage was a “Trump Original Gangster.” They decided they would build what was essentially a model wall on private property in Sunland Park.
Here was one contract Fisher was able to secure, being willing to start work on Memorial Day weekend without the necessary permits. Kolfage and Bannon apparently wanted to provoke city officials, who promptly shut the construction down when they returned after the holiday. Kolfage spun it as evidence that We Build the Wall was being victimized by liberals bought off by the cartels.
“So Sunland Park officials support open borders, the sex slaves and illegal drugs coming into their communities?” Kolfage tweeted.
The city almost immediately allowed the work to resume. The Trumpian base, once roused, still responded as Kolfage no doubt hoped, with even more donations.
Soon, the sample wall was built. Bannon spoke of Fisher as “a colleague, a friend and a guy I would say is kind of a mentor.”
At the three day Wall-a-Thon, a supposed hardhat dubbed Foreman Mike told viewers, “We have to get more donations in. It’s real simple.”
He announced that for $5,000, a contributor could get a name inscribed on one of the wall’s vertical steel slats; your family, your mother, even your cat.
“Get that credit card out,” Foreman Mike said. “You need to donate today! America needs you! Let's get off the couch and let’s win!”
Fisher as well as Bannon and Kolfage had to feel they were a step closer to winning the following month, when Donald Trump, Jr. gave a speech at the We Build the Wall site.
“Showing really what capitalism is all about,” Trump, Jr. said. “This is private enterprise at its finest.”
Fisher went on to build a second, longer wall on the banks of the Rio Grande River in Mission, Texas. An adjacent nature reserve called the National Butterfly Center tried to block the project. Kolfage began tweeting that the center was involved in tax evasion and sex trafficking children.
The center director, Marianna Trevino-Wright, discerned a certain irony when she learned that one of Fisher’s brothers had been in prison for child pornography and the other for tax fraud. Tommy Fisher continued running a second construction project where Kolfage used slanders to rouse the base and therefore donations.
Meanwhile, things started to go the way Fisher hoped. The Army Corps of Engineers had suddenly come to take a different view of Fisher Industries and awarded him a $400 million contract to build 31 miles of wall in Yuma County, Arizona, a favorite President Trump visiting spot. Fisher’s bid had been endorsed by now Sen. Cramer. Trump, Jr.’s impression from visiting the model wall could not have hurt either. Nor could appearances by Fisher on Fox News, where he spoke of building walls faster, better, cheaper.
On learning that Fisher had landed the contract after being previously turned away by the Army Corps of Engineers, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS) asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to take a look.
“In response to your request, we have decided to initiate an audit of the solicitation and award of this contract,” the Pentagon replied in a letter to Thompson. “We are assessing the methodology of that audit and will formally announce the audit soon.”
But that did not stop Fisher from landing another federal contract, this for $1.3 billion to build 43 miles of wall in Arizona. That brought Fisher to $1.7 billion. He was looking decidedly like a winner.
Kolfage and Bannon looked decidedly like losers when they were arrested on Thursday. Bannon may have imagined himself a winner as he lounged on a fugitive Chinese billionaire’s luxury yacht off the coast of Connecticut, a million bucks to the good for having done just a little of the flim-flam he does anyway.
But then a Coast Guard vessel pulled alongside with several postal inspectors, who boarded the yacht and placed Bannon under arrest. Other postal inspectors arrested Kolfage in Florida.
“The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds,” Inspector-in-Charge Philip R. Bartlett told the press. “As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth.”
He added, “This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist.”
Kolfage raged on Facebook against the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York as he had on Twitter against the Butterfly Center.
“The witch hunt is on!” he declared. “I’m not going to be bullied into being a political prisoner for my beliefs. I have fought hard for these freedoms and the SDNY is on an all out assault to take down every Trump insider from the 2016 election, that means Bannon. They will ruin innocent people's lives in order to have a war trophy pinned to the wall just before elections.”
He went on, “I’ve obtained one the best super lawyers around who isn't afraid to fight back at the politically motivated assaults against me. This is where the line of freedom is drawn. If you allow the weaponized apparatus to win, we lose freedom. They will go after anyone for anything they want, anytime.”
He was not done.
“They won’t ever investigate their friends like the Clinton Foundation. They’ve targeted Trump’s inner circle-Flynn, Stone, Manafort, Cohen and now Bannon. If it walks like a duck, quack likes a duck, it’s a duck. We can’t let the weaponized judicial system take any more political prisoners. FIGHT BACK!”
If Kolfage is angling for a pardon, he could not have been encouraged by what the president told reporters regarding the We Build the Wall campaign.
“I don’t like that project,” Trump said. “I thought it was being done for showboating reasons. It was something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.”
That came after a remark Trump made earlier in the month, after reports that the second model wall had been built too close to the river.
“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” Trump tweeted. “It was only done to make me look bad, and [perhaps] it now doesn't.”
Fisher also could not have been happy with Trump’s recent remarks about We Build the Wall, though his spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
But Fisher has not been not been arrested and he still has $1.7 billion in contracts. That makes him a decided winner in Trump world.
And who knows, Fisher may yet get more.