By Larry Neumeister, The Associated Press
NEW YORK — The organizers of a “We Build The Wall” campaign to raise money for a wall along the U.S. southern border lied to donors by saying all their money would fund the wall when they were actually pocketing hundreds of thousands of dollars, a prosecutor told a jury at the start of a criminal trial Tuesday.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe directed the attention of jurors to defendant Timothy Shea, who sat alone facing charges after two other defendants recently pleaded guilty in the case and a fourth defendant, Steve Bannon, was pardoned by President Donald Trump hours before he completed his four-year term last year.
She said Shea, of Castle Rock, Colorado, and his “partners in crime” beginning in December 2018 duped hundreds of thousands of people into believing that they would not pocket any money that was raised because 100% of donations went to building the wall.
The prosecutor tried to narrow the focus of jurors by telling them that the prosecution “is not about whether there should be a wall” or whether money was used to build a wall.
“None of that makes it OK for the defendant to steal money at the same time,” she said.
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Moe said Shea used a shell company, Ranch Property Management, to hide the fact that hundreds of thousands of dollars were being siphoned away from donations because Shea and his partners “wanted some of that money for themselves.”
She said it had been agreed that the projects founder, Brian Kolfage, would receive $100,000 along with $20,000 a month even though donors had been told he would receive nothing.
“They were committing fraud, plain and simple,” Moe said.
Kolfage, an Air Force veteran who lost both legs in a mortar attack in Iraq, and codefendant financier Andrew Badolato, each pleaded guilty in April to charges. They await sentencing.
Shea’s attorney, John Meringolo, told jurors that the prosecution’s case fails because Ranch Property Management was not a shell company and his client never said he didn’t want to be paid for working out real estate issues related to the wall along a southern border “where it’s very dangerous.”
Meringolo told jurors that if he does his job, by the end of the case “on the train going home, you’ll say: ‘That’s not nice what they did to Tim Shea. When you work, you get paid.’”
The lawyer said the fundraising effort resulted in the construction of two stretches of wall, including one that was completed in a matter of weeks at a cost of $7 million even though the Army Corps of Engineers had predicted it would cost $31 million and take two years to build.
Shea, the owner of an energy drink company, Winning Energy, whose cans have featured a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain “12 oz. of liberal tears,” was described by Meringolo as someone with experience in real estate whose expertise came in handy along the border, where most properties are ranches.
He warned jurors not to let their political views cloud their judgment.
“We’re New Yorkers. Maybe we don’t like the wall,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with us all having different views. That’s what makes this country great.”