A south Texas butterfly conservationist has a message for Steve Bannon and three others arrested on Thursday for fraud and money laundering in what the feds describe as a border wall fundraising scheme.
“I just wish them well in their cavity searches,” says Marianna Treviño-Wright, executive director of the National Butterfly Center.
Treviño-Wright was targeted by We Build the Wall late last year, when she sought to stop the construction of a barrier beside the center’s nature preserve along the American side of the Rio Grande, 100 acres that the organization employs to educate the public “about the value of biodiversity, the beauty of the natural world, the wonder of butterflies, particularly, and the powerful role they play in maintaining healthy ecosystems and sustainable food resources.” We Build the Wall’s founder, disabled Air Force combat veteran Brian Kolfage, tweeted allegations that Treviño-Wright was in league with a drug cartel and sex trafficking children.
A Nov. 15, 2019, tweet featured a video of a car being chased down a dusty road by two Border Patrol vehicles, sirens wailing.
“Here’s border patrol chasing Reynosa Cartel members right next to the Butterfly center which openly supports illegal immigration and sex trafficking of women and children. Come on butterfly center we did our homework,” he wrote.
A tweet the next day read, “What’s not funny @NatButterflies is how you decline to comment on the rampant sex trade taking place on your property and the death bodies? Any comment? Or is it all for the butterflies? Should I post the govt reports of such crimes or maybe we’ll give it to the media!”
The motive behind such outrageous accusations seems clear when you take a look at We Build the Wall’s one previous project. This was a stretch of wall on private property in Sunland Park, New Mexico, begun in late May 2019.
Kolfage had founded We Build the Wall the previous year as a GoFundMe effort with a stated goal of raising $1 billion that would be turned over to the government to build a border wall. Some 300,000 people contributed, but the total came to just $23 million. That was $973 million short of the target, and GoFundMe’s usual protocol called for Kolfage to return the money.
Kolfage then connected with Bannon, along with the two other men now under indictment, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea. They cooked up a new approach and GoFundMe agreed to let We Build the Wall keep the money if it actually built one, with a private contractor on private property.
A landowner on the border town of Sunland Park gave We Build the Wall permission in an area that is zoned for big construction projects. Sunland Park Mayor Javier Perea later told The Daily Beast that the group could have easily secured the necessary permits.
Instead, the group went in the Thursday before Memorial Day weekend last year and secured a permit only for a 5-foot rock wall. Work on what appeared to be a much bigger effort began on Friday. A city inspector came to investigate but was denied access to the property.
The Tuesday after Memorial Day, city officials returned from the holiday to discover that construction of a 20-foot steel barrier was well on the way. The city issued a cease and desist order and Kolfage went right on Twitter.
“Here we go!! Liberals trying to intimidate us! SOUND THE ALARM.”
He also tweeted, “What cartel paid off the Sunland Park City officials to lie and shut down our wall project?!”
The city soon after granted the permits it would have been easy to obtain in the first place. Kolfage nonetheless tweeted for supporters to bombard the mayor and his fellow officials with emails and phone calls. The missives included death threats and mayor later allowed to The Daily Beast that he was unnerved. The mayor also said he suspected We Build the Wall had angled for a shutdown so as to rouse the Trumpian base. A stop-work order thereby became a fundraising opportunity.
That same strategy of rousing the base seemed to be at work with the second project, by the butterfly center in south Texas. Kolfage did not even spare a local priest, Father Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mission, Texas. Snipes dared to take Treviño-Wright and a local TV news crew out on the Rio Grande in his boat, so they could take a look at We Build the Wall’s excavations.
“[Snipes] is promoting human trafficking and abuse of women and children,” Kolfage said in an interview with The Rundown. “Instead of driving around in expensive boats with media he should be helping… to combat the rampant pedophilia in the church.”
The boat in question was a half century old and had been given to Snipes, who is known as the Cowboy Priest and is widely admired in the Rio Grande Valley.
In a series of other tweets, Kolfage included videos of a central casting hardhat identified only as “Foreman Mike” standing amid busy construction equipment.
“FOREMAN MIKE UPDATE: We won’t be bullied by left wing thugs with a sham butterfly agenda—> @NatButterflies The fence just got 10’ taller,” one read.
In another tweet, Kolfage went after the butterflies themselves, calling them “butt-fies.”
Treviño-Wright later said she knew from the start that We Build the Wall was making outrageous claims about her and her organization and Snipes as a way to rile up the base. That made her a target of everybody from militia nuts to what she terms “neo-Nazi fascist, anti-immigrant thugs,” she said. But she understood that what We Build the Wall ultimately wanted was money.
“We knew from the start,” she told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “They did all this to increase their fundraising.”
She fought the project in the courts as best she could, noting that a barrier so close to the river’s edge would violate our treaty with Mexico and likely cause havoc when the water rises.
But We Build the Wall eventually prevailed with an argument that a privately funded project on private land should be allowed to proceed. Treviño-Wright was able to point out that it was inherently ridiculous to erect a short stretch of wall that just ends where it ends, with no possible connection to the barrier the government is preparing to build a mile deeper into U.S. territory.
But building a wall was apparently not the primary goal of We Build the Wall, as people other than Treviño-Wright might have been quicker to suspect if Kolfage were not a triple amputee, having lost both legs and part of an arm in Iraq.
Kolfage and Bannon and their two buddies are alleged to have been practicing The Art of the Steal. Word of their arrest Thursday reached Treviño-Wright as a confirmation of what she figured and then some. She told The Daily Beast that she thought We Build the Wall was an effort to raise dark money for political purposes, but prosecutors say the indicted four had been diverting the funds to personal accounts to cover personal expenses and high living.
Indictment # 20-cr-412 charges that Kolfage used one account to pay for “a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt.” There was also one particularly noteworthy extravagance by the man who tweeted that a highly regarded priest should have been going after pedophiles rather cruising around in “expensive boats.”
”A 2019 Jupiter Marine boat named ‘Warfighter,’” the indictment notes.
Kolfage posted a picture of the boat on his Instagram account and it will almost certainly be used as evidence against him in a case that could land him and his co-defendants in prison for as long as 40 years.
Treviño-Wright notes that the contractor who worked on both We Build the Wall projects has secured more than $1 billion in federal contracts to erect more border barriers. She further notes that Donald Trump Jr. made a speech at the Sunland Park project praising We Build the Wall.
“It’s a circle jerk,” Treviño-Wright said. “And Donald Jr.’s dick is in there somewhere.”
Meanwhile, she offers Kolfage, Bannon, and the two under arrest her best wishes in their cavity searches.