Brian Kolfage pleads not guilty to federal tax charges in Florida
PENSACOLA — Brian Kolfage, the Miramar Beach wounded warrior already scheduled for a federal trial in New York on fraud and money laundering conspiracy charges, pleaded not guilty Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Pensacola to federal charges of filing a false tax return and wire fraud in connection with the electronic filing of that 2019 return.
Both sets of charges are connected with We Build The Wall Inc., a Florida-based nonprofit organization founded by Kolfage in 2019 to collect donations for private construction of sections of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
An Aug. 2 date was set Wednesday for trial on the Florida charges, with the case going to District Judge M.C. Rodgers. Outside the courthouse after the brief proceedings, Kolfage was greeted by an enthusiastic group of about 20 supporters.
The trial date was set as part of Kolfage’s arraignment in Pensacola in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Hope T. Cannon. Kolfage was represented by a federal public defender, but plans to retain private counsel. His search for counsel will be the subject of a June 14 status conference in the case, unless he has counsel on record before that date.
Kolfage had been set for arraignment on the charges last week, but the date was moved to give him time to retain private counsel. Assistant U.S. Attorney David Goldberg noted that the proceedings already had been continued once since the May 4 indictment by a grand jury. Goldberg suggested to Kolfage that the court likely would not continue to set status conferences to allow him to continue his search for counsel. As a matter of policy, Goldberg did not answer questions after the arraignment.
Outside the courtroom, Kolfage said only that he was searching for the right counsel to represent him on the Florida charges. It’s possible, he said, that his counsel in the New York case could represent him in Florida.
Before Wednesday’s proceedings, Kolfage said, “I’m not giving any comment on it (the Florida case) today.” Asked if he knew in advance about the show of support that was unfolding outside the courthouse even before proceedings began, he said, “I’d heard some rumblings about it.”
Kolfage spoke briefly with his supporters as he left the courthouse, thanking them as they waved signs, American flags and flags supporting former President Donald Trump.
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Among those supporters was Santa Rosa County Commissioner James Calkins.
“I believe this is a witch hunt against him (Kolfage),” Calkins said.
He added that he believes the prosecution of Kolfage is designed to intimidate other conservative voices.
Also outside the courthouse Wednesday was Sharon Regan of the Gulf Coast Patriots, a Republican club that had a number of people on hand.
“We feel like they are weaponizing the IRS and targeting Trump supporters,” she said.
Like a number of people who showed up, Regan believes that Kolfage’s war wounds — he lost both legs and an arm in a 2004 rocket attack in Iraq — ought to be balanced against whatever tax liabilities he might have.
Jane Leyva, a Pensacola resident who made her way to the courthouse after hearing about Kolfage’s situation on the “War Room” podcast hosted by former Trump White House chief political strategist Steve Bannon, was similarly incredulous that federal prosecutors would pursue Kolfage in light of the cost of his military service.
“To think that they (federal prosecutors) would say he’s not paying his fair share of taxes …,” she said.
Bannon had been a co-defendant with Kolfage in the New York federal case, but Trump issued him a pardon in the waning hours of his presidency in January. Bannon reportedly mentioned Kolfage’s case at least twice this week on his podcast.
Specifically, the indictment handed down by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Florida alleges that during the 2019 tax year, Kolfage received hundreds of thousands of dollars from multiple organizations — including We Build The Wall, Inc. — and failed to report that income to the Internal Revenue Service.
If convicted on charges in the Florida indictment, Kolfage faces the possibility of serving up to 20 years in prison.
According to documents in the New York case, $140,000 was steered to Kolfage from We Build The Wall Inc., by co-defendants in that case in the first three months of a 2019 scheme that continued until late that year. Ultimately, according to the indictment, Kolfage received $350,000 in the scheme, although some of that money likely came to him after the 2019 tax year.
According to the Florida indictment, Kolfage filed his 2019 return electronically on July 15, 2020, the filing deadline. Kolfage’s return reported $63,574 in income and recorded a $4,173 tax liability. But the indictment contends that Kolfage “well knew, the total income and the total tax for the tax year 2019 were materially in excess of that amount.”
The indictment alleges that the unreported income, deposited in a personal Kolfage account with the Pentagon Federal Credit Union, was “obscured by passing through multiple organizations, corporations, entities, and persons before being deposited into the personal bank account Brian G. Kolfage maintained.”
Following his May indictment in Florida, Kolfage told the Northwest Florida Daily News that he had filed an amended tax return reflecting additional income. He did not, however, provide the Daily News with any documented evidence of filing an amended return.
In the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, a trial is tentatively set for late this year, possibly in November, on federal charges against Kolfage there of conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The grand jury indictment handed down there last August alleges Kolfage and three co-defendants worked to transfer some of the millions of dollars in donations to We Build The Wall Inc. to the personal use of Kolfage and Bannon.
Also indicted in New York for their roles in the alleged scheme are Florida investor Andrew Badolato and Colorado real estate agent Timothy Shea.
The charges against Kolfage in the Southern District of New York carry a possible combined penalty of 40 years in prison.
We Build The Wall collected a reported $25 million in donations, ultimately spending $8.5 million on an almost mile-long section of border wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico, and allocating an additional $1.5 million for a 3.5-mile section of wall built in Texas by a contractor operating separately from the nonprofit.
After those projects, according to Kolfage, the nonprofit organization worked with the federal Department of Homeland Security to investigate a list of projects for which the department had indicated it needed some help. The nonprofit also worked to educate people on border issues, according to Kolfage.