July 3, 2019 / 3:33 PM / 19 days ago

Special Report: The non-profits, startups and PACs seizing on Trump’s dream wall

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s signature campaign vow to erect a wall on the southern U.S. border with Mexico has been mired in cross-border bickering and opposition from Democratic lawmakers with power over the government’s purse strings.

Cattle rancher Arlene Mackay, 80, raises the American flag at her ranch in Avon, Montana, U.S. June 28, 2019. Picture taken June 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tommy Martino

But amid the political stalemate, a wave of only-in-America entrepreneurs, fundraisers and profiteers have taken the issue into their own hands.

Tapping into Trump’s outrage over immigrants pouring into the United States, several dozen citizens have created non-profit and for-profit organizations, started GoFundMe pages, and launched political action committees to raise money to fund the wall or support like-minded candidates. In all, more than $25 million has poured in, the vast majority to a venture led by an Air Force veteran who has become the most public face of the fundraising mission.

Who’s paying the bill? Americans such as Arlene Mackay, 80, a Montana cattle rancher who gave $1,000 in January to what she thought was a multi-million dollar fundraiser, dubbed We Build the Wall, to construct a border wall. In fact, her money went to a different venture with a similar name: Build the Wall.

“I thought I might be buying a piece of the wall – like an inch,” said Mackay, when informed her donation had not reached its intended target. The money, she said, could have gone instead to buy half a cow. “I’m just going to say I better be very cautious from now on.”

In all, Reuters found, more than 330,000 Americans have dipped into their wallets to bankroll emerging border wall campaigns. With their investments have come big promises, but few concrete results. The most noticeable impact so far: A half-mile of new bollard-style fencing in eastern New Mexico, built by the largest border wall fundraiser.

Even that project has been beset by regulatory concerns. Meanwhile, wall-themed novelty toy sellers and failed political action committees have left behind some disappointed customers and donors.

Yet even if these efforts don’t deliver a full border wall, some backers express no regrets.

“I don’t expect a private organization to actually finish it, but what I’m hoping is that it will resonate with other politicians and government, and show that we’ve got a movement,” said Richard Mills, 68, an Ohio information technology worker who gave $400 to two border wall fundraisers.

WALL CROWDFUNDING

U.S. government analysts have been skeptical about the need to seal off the Mexican border with 1,300 more miles of wall. Each new mile of fencing and barriers would yield diminishing returns while costing more in installation and maintenance, concluded a 2016 Congressional Research Service report.

And then there’s the cost to build: $21.6 billion, according to an internal Department of Homeland Security report.

The idea of sealing off the U.S. border with Mexico has been a Trump fixation, ever since his June 2015 campaign promise to build a “great, great wall on our southern border” galvanized voters angry over illegal immigration. Since his election, the wall plans have stalled. When Congress refused to meet Trump’s requests for billions in wall funding, he forced a 35-day government shutdown at the end of 2018, then declared an emergency in February, a maneuver hung up in federal court challenges.

Meanwhile, a handful of fundraising campaigns have sprung up to solicit cash from fervent believers who want more miles built. The groups are run by veterans, ex-government officials, even a seven-year-old Texas boy who raised wall money with a hot chocolate stand.

Ray Nurnberger, general manager at a Long Island lumber yard, has donated more than $300 to three different border wall fundraisers over the past year, even while saving up for a wedding and preparing to support his first child.

“I’ll keep giving, because I don’t want my kid to not be able to find a job, or have to compete with people who didn’t come here legally,” said Nurnberger, 46.

His donations shed light on the circuitous path contributions can follow once they leave donors’ hands.

His first went to the Border Wall Foundation, a non-profit created in 2018 by Ken Downey, a veteran and former Border Patrol communications supervisor, who said he did it as a civics lesson for his teenage daughter. They created a website, set up social media pages – but raised just $2,450, which he holds in an account while continuing to fundraise.

“If someday we get too frustrated and decide to quit and throw our hands in the air and say ‘we’re not getting there,’ we’d donate it to another effort to build the wall,” said Downey, of Washington State.

Next, Nurnberger gave $100 to a border wall fundraiser launched by the National Sheriffs Association in March 2018, with a promise that “100% of your tax-deductible donation will go to secure America’s southern border.” But the logistics of collecting donations began to overwhelm the association, and some sheriffs argued against supporting Trump’s border wall.

In September 2018, the sheriffs decided to donate their funds, which totaled around $25,000 at the time, to another non-profit campaign, Fund the Wall. That effort was founded by a Maryland IT professional, Quentin Kramer, who had registered the web domain name before Trump ran for president. On the day the sheriffs’ donations started flowing into Kramer’s group, Bristol County, Massachusetts, Sheriff Thomas Hodgson appeared on Fox television to promote the sheriffs’ fundraising website. Donations poured in: $100,000 that week, Kramer said.

But the effort had already hit its own wall. Kramer’s plan was to send donations to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be used for wall construction. DHS said it couldn’t take the money, telling Kramer it did “not have the resources to process external donations at this time.”

Hodgson told Kramer the sheriffs had already been talking to DHS and could cut through the red tape. In November, Hodgson submitted a form on behalf of Fund the Wall, offering to donate $100,000 to DHS, stipulating that the agency “may only use this gift to construct border barriers (e.g. a wall) on the southern border of USA,” according to the form, reviewed by Reuters.

DHS said its office that processes gifts had not seen the form, and that it had “no information to offer on the status of a donation.” Hodgson said he would go back to DHS to figure out what happened.

Today, Nurnberger’s $100 sits in the bank account of Fund the Wall, along with $222,267 in other donations. Nurnberger said he had no idea where his money had landed, until contacted by Reuters.

“I guess that approach wasn’t the right way to go about it, because they don’t seem to have the ability to get that money to DHS,” he said.

‘WE BUILD THE WALL’

Meanwhile, Nurnberger had already donated an additional $100 to another border wall fundraiser, this one launched on the online fundraising platform GoFundMe in December 2018.

That effort, initially named “We The People Will Fund The Wall,” was spearheaded by Brian Kolfage. A triple amputee U.S. Air Force veteran, Kolfage formerly ran a company that made millions running right-wing media pages. His border wall fundraiser pulled in $20 million in donations within a month, promoted by prominent immigration skeptics such as Trump’s former campaign manager Steve Bannon and former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach.

At first, Kolfage pledged to send donations to the U.S. government. But in January, he updated the GoFundMe site to say his team had decided to use the money instead to hire private contractors and build the wall themselves, rebranding the fundraiser as “We Build the Wall.”

Under GoFundMe rules, that meant the donors got their money back. But most of them, accounting for $14 million, kept their money with Kolfage. With more than $11 million in new donations, he’s now raised over $25 million.

Kolfage drew support from fundraisers such as Benton Stevens, the seven-year-old Texas boy who set up a hot chocolate stand to raise money for a border wall after watching Trump’s State of the Union speech. We Build the Wall contacted Stevens’ family after his stand made the news in February, and his parents eventually donated the funds to Kolfage’s effort, said his father Shane, who estimated his son raised $28,000. Benton still draws donations from Benton’s Stand, a website selling hot chocolate mix, powdered lemonade and Trump-themed products.

At the end of May, Kolfage unveiled the first fruits of his project: the steel bollard fence on private property near the U.S.-Mexico border in Sunland Park, New Mexico. Benton Stevens and Kolfage jointly wielded the scissors during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The wall, which Kolfage said cost around $7.5 million, immediately hit resistance. Sunland Park city officials issued a cease and desist order, saying the project was not properly permitted. In turn, Kolfage told his thousands of supporters the city was in league with drug cartels, urging them to pressure local officials to allow construction to proceed.

Over the next two days, the city pushed through approvals, on condition Kolfage met all code requirements. Sunland Park city officials declined comment.

We Build the Wall ran into similar permitting problems with an agency called the International Boundary and Water Commission, which controls an access road into Mexico near the site. Kolfage’s team built a gate across the road. Kolfage and the commission worked out an arrangement under which the gate remains closed at night but open during the day.

Days before his team broke ground, Kolfage said, a White House official he would not name told the boundary commission “not to mess with” his operation.

The commission “looked into that claim and could not find anyone who had received that call,” said spokeswoman Sally Spener. The White House did not return calls for comment.

The half-mile of wall did not succeed in completely sealing the border near Sunland Park; video showed migrants running across the border a few miles away.

“You gotta start somewhere, that’s how we look at it,” said Kolfage, comparing the border to a leaky hose that must be patched in multiple spots.

A budget of estimated project expenses he submitted to the state of Florida, where his organization is registered, sets aside $690,000 for salaries and $350,000 for “professional and consulting” expenses in 2019. He said the salaries are for his eight or nine full-time employees, including his spokesperson and Kobach, his general counsel. Kolfage says he is taking no compensation.

After complaints to the Florida Attorney General, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services opened a review. The complaints noted that Kolfage was promoting a donor-only raffle to win a trip to visit the wall, but Florida law says charities must allow anyone, not just donors, to enter contests. Kolfage dismissed the inquiry as “smoke and mirrors.” The department said the probe is ongoing and declined further comment.

Such controversy has concerned some fellow fundraisers. “You get too many black eyes like this and people are gonna lose faith,” said Jon Brimus, spokesman for Fund the Wall.

Kolfage said his success had bruised the egos of critics, but acknowledged his effort alone could never raise enough money to fund the entire wall. “Our end game is really just to keep the pressure on our government to fix this crisis from both sides.”

Linda Kilgore, a Washington State retiree, donated $100 to both Kolfage’s GoFundMe and Downey’s Border Wall Foundation. Kilgore, 65, said her career as a school teacher showed her illegal immigrants were overwhelming public schools, so she began donating to the border wall after a lifetime supporting causes such as wildlife conservation. She was happy to hear of Florida’s scrutiny of Kolfage.

“If somebody is taking my money, and I don’t care if it’s for polar bears or penguins, I’m hoping you’re above board, and if somebody’s looking over your shoulder, that’s great,” she said.

Georgia Hostetler, 89, of South Carolina, has sent Kolfage’s group $30 a month since December. “When I see that man that lost two legs and an arm, I just love what he’s doing,” she said of the veteran.

PAC POLITICS

Trump’s border wall has become a magnet for political PACs, independent committees that operate with far fewer rules than campaigns on contributions and spending. At least four committees geared toward supporting the wall and like-minded political candidates were launched after his election.

All four failed to generate much, if any, money. They did confuse some donors.

“I thought it was going to go right to the wall,” said Chris Kilsdonk, 63, who runs a small business boarding and grooming dogs in rural Montana. She gave $400 to Raise the Wall, a committee started by a Republican political consultant in suburban Washington, D.C.

Kilsdonk gave after reading “a lot of articles on Facebook.” She said she was not aware she was giving to a political committee.

Raise the Wall Treasurer Chris Marston said he created the PAC in 2017 for a client, Mike Khristo, a web designer and Internet marketer from California. Donors were supposed to receive engraved bricks, but Marston said that proved to be too expensive.

“Fundraising costs ate up the whole amount that they raised,” Marston said. Raise the Wall received $13,246, but gave no money to support candidates before it was terminated six months later. Khristo declined to comment.

Another PAC, Build the Wall, began in January 2018, before Kolfage’s similarly named fund drive, by two California political consultants, Tommy Knepper and Briana Baleskie. Knepper said the plan was to raise funds for Republican Senate candidates in 2018, but his committee didn’t gain traction, raising $14,764 but giving nothing to support campaigns.

Knepper said he didn’t make any money from Build the Wall, and Baleskie, the treasurer, said she refunded a couple of misdirected contributions. They said they intend to shut it down. “We’re not out to frustrate people,” Baleskie said.

Political professionals weren’t the only ones getting involved. Daniel Schramek of St. Petersburg, Florida, is a Trump campaign volunteer once sanctioned by the Florida Supreme Court for practicing law without a license. Schramek started the Great Wall of America super PAC in 2017. The committee raised $700, which Schramek said he intends to refund to donors.

“It’s a lot of work getting people to donate money,” he said.

Slideshow (13 Images)

Another committee, the American Border Protection PAC, started in January. “There are greedy individuals who are raising enormous amounts of money to build the wall for personal gain and fame,” the committee’s website warns, saying all money would go to DHS for wall construction.

American Border Protection was the brainchild of Chrysalis Johnson, 43, a now-unemployed Arizona software designer who launched an earlier venture in cryptocurrency and an anti-Facebook campaign. He said his effort might help Americans living in border towns.

But, Johnson said, “No one wanted to buy into it.” He reported no contributions received.

Editing by Ronnie Greene and Jason Szep

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