All through an excruciating year, Americans found new ways to support each other. When COVID-19 plunged millions into food insecurity, neighbors set up mutual-aid groups and refrigerators full of free food. During a national uprising over police brutality, marchers took to the streets in the country’s largest ever protest movement. When evictions threatened families, tenant unions blockaded housing courts.
Then there were the people who did the exact opposite of that. From hucksters of fake COVID-19 cures to alleged political scammers to billionaires (as a concept), this is the year in grifts.
Border Wall Bilkers
Technically, the “We Build The Wall” project broke ground in 2019, in violation of a restraining order that ordered the group to stop destroying animal habitats at the National Butterfly Center. But this grifty right-wing group, which promised to crowd-fund President Donald Trump’s southern border wall, continued its project right up until key members were arrested on fraud charges in August.
“All money donated to the campaign goes directly to the wall!!!” one of the group’s fundraising messages read. “Not anyone’s pocket.”
The money did, in fact, land in the pockets of four We Build The Wall leaders, according to a criminal complaint. Federal prosecutors accuse We Build The Wall leaders, including former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, of enriching themselves with the crowdfunded cash. Bannon is accused of swindling more than $1 million from the fund. Feds arrested him aboard a mega-yacht where, until the previous day, he’d been recording fundraising videos, while most Americans weathered COVID-19 on the mainland.
Bannon and his co-defendants have pleaded not guilty, with Bannon calling the charges politically motivated.
The Church of COVID
Televangelist Jim Bakker told his audience not to panic. As the first cases of COVID-19 emerged in America, the pastor implied that a simple colloidal silver solution would knock the virus dead. Conveniently, that silver solution was available for sale from Bakker’s ministry, which also sells buckets full of dehydrated foodstuffs for the end-times.
Colloidal silver won’t do much besides turn your skin blue, maybe forever. Nevertheless, Bakker (who was convicted of fraud in the 1980s) persisted. His ministry sold more than $60,000 in colloidal silver to buyers from Arkansas alone. The governments of Missouri and Arkansas are currently suing him for peddling the fake cure. (He is not facing criminal charges, and attempted a counter-suit against Arkansas, which was dismissed this summer.) Bakker retained as his defense attorney Missouri’s former governor, who now also claims to ingest silver products on a regular basis.
Potentially offsetting the pricey legal battle, Bakker’s ministry received between $650,000 and $1.7 million in COVID-19 small business relief. And proceeds from the $145 buckets of apocalypse food “will be added to our ongoing Legal Recovery Fund.”
The Phantom Fund
Black Lives Matter Atlanta is a real racial justice organization. Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta, feds and activists say, is a scam operated out of Toledo, Ohio.
Tyree Conyers-Page, who goes by Sir Maejor Page, was arrested this year for alleged fraud after he fundraised more than $450,000 for his group “Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta,” and allegedly spent it on luxuries and real estate in Toledo. Page, who denies the allegations, has a long history of feuding with Atlanta’s actual Black Lives Matter chapter, which has disavowed him. That group’s leaders accuse him of impersonating law enforcement, and forming a splinter group (Black Lives Matter of Greater Atlanta) after he went on an anti-gay rant. In September, the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation released a statement accusing him of “extreme misleading behaviors” and “utilizing our name” for personal gain.
Start the Steal
In the days after the presidential election, as Trump’s loss became clear, a network of deniers emerged to peddle voter fraud hoaxes and solicit “donations” for their cause. A Facebook group called “Stop The Steal” quickly racked up hundreds of thousands of followers, and directed them to a webpage with no information besides a plea for readers’ money and personal information. The Stop The Steal group, which was later banned from Facebook, was moderated by a motley assortment of Trump types, including two who were served warrants (but not charged) in the “We Build The Wall” fraud case. The destination of the group’s donations was unclear, and the moderators did not respond to a request for comment.
Not to be outdone, the Trump campaign also bombarded supporters with requests for legal funds to overturn the election. But a Reuters investigation found that virtually all donations went to generic Trump campaign or Republican National Committee funds. Donors would have to fork over $8,000 or more for any of it to be redirected to a “recount account.”
Rich People, Again
Up to 40 million Americans face eviction when COVID-related eviction moratoriums expire. (Congress recently extended the moratorium one month, until the end of January.) Shoplifting of basic survival items like food, soap, and baby formula is on the rise. Millions of workers and their millions of dependents have lost employer-provided health insurance as jobs evaporated during the pandemic.
America’s 614 billionaires, however, added a combined $931 billion to their net worths between mid-March and December. They can credit a stock market that continued to post record gains, which might, in turn, credit a U.S. government that provided a pittance in COVID relief, forcing workers back into the field to keep the economy humming along. As small businesses shuttered, billionaire-owned megacorps like Amazon siphoned up business, going on hiring sprees and sending their stock prices soaring, even as nearly 20,000 COVID-19 cases broke out in Amazon warehouses.
This, of course, is perfectly legal.