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Behind #GoFundTheWall, a shadowy email harvesting operation

Image: Border Wall On US Mexico Border Continues To Be Sticking Point Drivi
A man walks on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border barrier on Jan. 8, 2019 in Tijuana, Mexico. Copyright Mario Tama Getty Images
Copyright Mario Tama Getty Images
By Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins with NBC News Tech and Science News
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Brian Kolfage, a triple-amputee Air Force veteran, has operated fake news websites and fundraisers to build a lucrative email list.


The GoFundMe fundraiser that promised to help privately fund President Donald Trump's plan for a wall spanning the length of the U.S.-Mexico border surpassed $20 million dollars in donations this week. But the man behind it — Brian Kolfage, a rising conservative media star — may have had another goal.

Through his border-wall campaign, he claims to have gathered 3.5 million email addresses, which are essential to his broader operation — a wide-ranging and multipronged effort to collect a list of Trump supporters who have proven to be sources of donations for conservative efforts, former employees told NBC News.

According to former employees and public records including website archives, Nevada business registrations and property records, Kolfage has repeatedly created GoFundMe campaigns and published inflammatory fake news articles, pushing them both from websites that he sought to hide behind shell companies and false identities, in part to harvest email addresses. Those addresses were then used to push people back to Kolfage's websites, to sell a brand of coffee he owns, or to be stockpiled for future use by conservative campaigns.

Kolfage, a triple-amputee Air Force veteran, had mostly worked behind the scenes of this operation until the viral GoFundMe campaign made national headlines.

Retired U.S. Air Force Sr. Airman Brian Kolfage speaks to reporters during a 2016 groundbreaking ceremony for a new home he and his family were receiving through the Gary Sinise Foundation\'s RISE program at Sandestin, Florida, on Jan. 14, 2016.
Retired U.S. Air Force Sr. Airman Brian Kolfage speaks to reporters during a 2016 groundbreaking ceremony for a new home he and his family were receiving through the Gary Sinise Foundation\'s RISE program at Sandestin, Florida, on Jan. 14, 2016.Devon Ravine

Six days after the campaign was launched, it was edited to include a new call: "AFTER DONATING, SIGN OUR PETITION WE NEED 100 million signatures." The text repeats four times at the top of the page before any description about the fundraiser itself.

A spokesperson for GoFundMe told NBC News that all donors would be refunded because Kolfage had changed the language midcampaign, erasing an earlier pledge to "refund every single penny" if the goal of $1 billion was not met. Those donors will also be offered a way to refuse the refund and instead have it routed to a new charity set up by Kolfage, the spokesperson said.

Kolfage also used GoFundMe to solicit donations by check to a P.O. Box in Colorado, manned by former Freedom Daily writer Amanda Shea. The amount raised via checks is unclear, though Kolfage noted in a tweet that payments by check had put them "over the record."

GoFundMe says it has no hand in refunding those funds.

"We process refunds for donations made online through GoFundMe. That does not include any offline donations," the spokesperson said.

The campaign, however, is only the most high-profile part of Kolfage's email harvesting operation, which former employees told NBC News extends back to his creation of far-right news websites — an effort that resulted in a Facebook ban.

Fake news, real emails

Kolfage's email harvesting previously relied on two ultra-conservative websites, FreedomDaily and Right Wing News, that frequently trafficked in false and politically divisive news, according to two former employees and two owners of competitor websites.

Lindsey Lowery, a staff writer at FreedomDaily from January 2017 to January 2018, shared a text message with NBC News in which Kolfage discussed his email harvesting plans.

Kolfage told Lowery that "we can make our own [petition] through the website to steal/collect emails" in September 2017.

Lowery said Kolfage would create a petition or campaign related to an article she wrote on FreedomDaily, and then embed the email bait in that article.

"People would get worked up about the subject matter, so they'd want to go sign the petition to add their name to the cause," Lowery said. "Brian is referring to 'stealing' the emails, in this text, because the people didn't sign up to get spammed with his news. It was simply to be part of the petition. I believe that's how he got his email distribution built up."

Former U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage, center, sits in a wheelchair next to his wife Ashley, right, who holds their daughter Paris, during the National September 11 Memorial and Museum\'s "Salute to Service" tribute honoring U.S. veterans in New York on Nov. 10, 2014.
Former U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Brian Kolfage, center, sits in a wheelchair next to his wife Ashley, right, who holds their daughter Paris, during the National September 11 Memorial and Museum\'s "Salute to Service" tribute honoring U.S. veterans in New York on Nov. 10, 2014.Bebeto Matthews

"As soon as we would hit publish on an article, we'd immediately have about 200-300 people on the article, because of the spike in traffic that those emails being blasted out would provide," Lowery said.

Despite Kolfage's repeated denials of owning the now-defunct Freedom Daily, former employees and competitors, most of whom asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution, provided company emails, employment documents and company checks that show Kolfage's home address as Freedom Daily's corporate business address.

Kolfage told NBC News that he simply managed the finances and administration for Freedom Daily. He said the operation's true owner lives in another country and is unwilling to talk about the website.


The one site Kolfage does claim to be "associated with," Right Wing News, features a chief operating officer on its website named "Steven Smith," whose headshot is a reverse image of a stock photo. Kolfage declined to provide biographical details or contact information for Smith, who former employees allege does not exist. Kolfage is listed as the site's social media strategist.

Kolfage told NBC news that Smith is real, but operates the website anonymously for fear of threats to his family "from the left."

FreedomDaily was part of a network of websites operating under the umbrella of "Liberty Alliance," a Christian online media empire that hosts and serves advertising on the websites of the far-right's loudest and most partisan voices. FreedomDaily and other right-wing content makers under Liberty Alliance would swap hyperpartisan content to attract readers and frequently trafficked in far-right propaganda and false articles.

FreedomDailyshut downin February 2018, the same month the site was sued for publishing an article that had falsely identified the driver of the car thatkilled a protestor during a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. While several of the other defendants have paid settlements to the incorrectly identified person, lawyers for the plaintiff told NBC News they were still trying to find the FreedomDaily's owner to enforce a default entry against the site. FreedomDaily's owner failed to respond to the lawsuit.

Kolfage and his editor-in-chief, the conservative blogger Jeff Rainforth, moved on to a new site, Right Wing News. Kolfage bought already-popular and verified Facebook pages from the conservative commentator John Hawkins, who operated a "Right Wing News" site with a different web address, according to former Kolfage employees and Hawkins' public accounts.


Just as his new business was growing — Kolfage claimed he spent $300,000 on ads to attract some 3.5 million followers —Facebook removed the pages associated with Kolfage's websites in October as part of a crack down on "inauthentic behavior."

Cut off from the major source of his audience, Kolfage appeared to revert to a previous tactic — tapping his growing list of email subscribers.

Politics as usual

After his Facebook ban, Kolfage started a GoFundMe page imploring people to donate to help him "stop social media censorship." As the donations poured in — he's raised $73,000 through the campaign and an undisclosed amount via a new landing page he set up to receive donations directly — he urged supporters to sign his petition.

"We need 1 Million signatures to take to the White House!" his site stated. As of Friday, the censorship campaign has collected over 31,000 emails, a number dwarfed by 3.5 million signatures and emails he's collected with the campaign to build the wall.

Joe Trippi, who is widely credited with pioneering campaign email lists on former New Hampshire Gov. Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2004, said that #GoFundTheWall's tactics mirror email-collecting projects he's seen from both parties. He called 3.5 million signatures collected in less than a month "a really big number," even by current standards.


"Whether it was Howard Dean or Rand Paul or John McCain, there's a pretty short period between 2003 and 2010 where this stuff tended to be pretty organic and idealistic," Trippi said. "They legitimately cared about the issues. We looked it at as a real democracy-building thing."

Trippi said that the practice of building email lists has since been co-opted by people looking to make money off politically active people.

"Pick your day in between there, but somewhere it got commoditized," he said.

What Kolfage will do with the signatures isn't clear and he and his representatives declined to talk about them on the record, but his options extend past the dissemination of fake news.

Kolfage's ties to Liberty Alliance could prove useful in monetizing his email list. During the rise of the tea party, Liberty Alliance's owner, Brandon Vallorani, perfected the art of publishing conservative content alongside merchandise — collecting one of politics' most valuable email lists along the way.


Vallorani and representatives for Liberty Alliance did not respond to requests for comment.

The selling of email lists in political circles has become standard practice. As a residential candidate, Hillary Clinton turned over her email list of about 10 million people to the Democratic National Committee in April 2017. The list was valued by the FEC at $3.5 million. Trump's list of 20 million supporters is reportedly for sale.

Problems have arisen when the lists are harvested by more free-wheeling sources within Liberty Alliance. Three Republicans who rented an email list from the far-right news site Big League Politics — another Liberty Alliance site — came under fire last year. Reps. Devin Nunes of California, and Steve Scalise of Louisiana and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas all paid for the ability to reach Big League Politics' readers who had signed up for updates through the site.

But Cruz and Scalise both ceased using Big League Politics' email list after one of the site's writers was tied to a secret message board driving harassment campaigns based on the fringe right-wing conspiracy theory Qanon.

Big League Politics' founders, former Breitbart staffers Dustin Stockton and his wife, Jennifer Lawrence, are now working as #GoFundTheWall's public relations contacts. Stockton and Lawrence left Big League Politics in 2017.


More fundraisers

The wall isn't Kolfage's first foray into online fundraising. Since 2013, he's used GoFundMe to finance professional projects and lawsuits and to buy land.

In June 2013, Kolfage crowdfunded his Wounded Warrior Mentor Engagement Program, which he claimed to have launched in response to President Barack Obama's "slashing" the funds that used to pay for Kolfage's trips to military hospitals.

"My wife and I visit newly severely wounded veterans and their families at various military hospitals, such as Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany," Kolfage wrote on GoFundMe. "Please help keep this program alive."

By 2015, he had raised over $20,000 through the GoFundMe and an additional fundraiser — a calendar sold on the hyperpartisan conservative news site, 100percentfedup, which netted an additional $4,000, according to a Facebook post by Kolfage and an interview with the site's owner.

"100 percent of those funds were used for these trips," Kolfage told NBC News in a text message.


But there is no record of Kolfage visiting Walter Reed, Brooke Army Medical Center, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center or other veterans hospitals since 2013, according to representatives from each hospital contacted by NBC News. BuzzFeed News was first to report the details of Kolfage's mentor progam.

"No one on our staff that was here during that time period can recall working with Mr. Kolfage," Robert Whetstone, deputy of communications at Brooke Army Medical Center, wrote in an email to NBC News.

In 2014, Kolfage launched a T-shirt campaign to cover the legal fees associated with a lawsuit against people he said had defamed him on Facebook, calling him a plagiarist and a racist, among other things. In 2015, Kolfage's wife started a fundraiser asking for $100,000 to buy land for a new home.

Kolfage's most recent Fight4Freedom fundraising campaign newsletter came from his personal email address, but spoke about him in the third-person.

"If you're ready to give back to a veteran who has given so much, then this is your chance to directly impact him and his family as well as fighting for conservative values," the email read.


To people who signed the petition and received the email, the sender's name appeared as "Donald Trump."

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