A court in the United States has handed down the highest sentence yet to a defendant involved in the “We Build the Wall” fundraising campaign, which purported to support the construction of former President Donald Trump’s wall along the border with Mexico.
Timothy Shea, 52, of Castle Rock, Colorado, received a prison sentence on Tuesday of five years and three months for his role in what prosecutors called “a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors”.
“We Build the Wall” was created to raise funds for an expansion of the barrier along the US-Mexico border, initiated by Trump as a key part of his controversial immigration platform.
An estimated total of $25m was raised through the fundraising drive. But prosecutors have alleged that, instead of contributing to the border wall’s construction, hundreds of thousands of dollars went instead towards the organisers’ personal gain.
At Shea’s sentencing in a Manhattan courtroom on Tuesday, US District Judge Analisa Torres accused the Colorado businessman and his co-defendants of betraying the public’s confidence.
“They hurt us all by eroding the public’s faith in the political process,” she said.
Three other defendants were charged along with Shea in 2020 for their role in the scheme: military veteran Brian Kolfage, financier Andrew Badolato and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon.
Kolfage and Badolato have since pleaded guilty to their roles in defrauding donors. They were sentenced in April, with Kolfage receiving a prison term of four years and three months, and Badolato receiving a three-year term.
The sentence Judge Torres awarded Shea mirrored the full amount of what prosecutors had requested.
Shea’s defence team, meanwhile, had pushed for a lighter sentence of two years, arguing that Shea was not a mastermind in the fundraising scheme.
Prosecutors, however, alleged that Shea pocketed approximately $180,000 and helped launder more money with his co-defendants through shell companies.
Those practices clashed with promises made through the “We Build a Wall” campaign, including that its organisers would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that all proceeds would go towards the border wall “mission”.
In October, a jury unanimously convicted Shea of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to commit money laundering and obstruction of justice.
In addition to his prison sentence, Shea faces three years of supervised release, as well as a fine of $1,801,707 and restitution of $1,801,707.
“Timothy Shea abused the trust of donors to ‘We Build the Wall’, stole hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations to line his own pockets, and attempted to obstruct the federal investigation of his criminal conduct,” US Attorney Damian Williams said in a press release on Tuesday. “The defendant has now been held accountable.”
Border walls remain a divisive form of deterrence along the US-Mexico border, with Republicans and Democrats split over their use.
Trump, a candidate in the 2024 presidential race, successfully campaigned in 2016 on a hardline immigration platform, including a border wall. At rallies, he would lead supporters in chants of: “Build that wall! Build that wall!”
He ultimately completed more than 724km (450 miles) of construction along the border, much of which replaced or upgraded existing barriers. The southern border, however, is much larger: approximately 3,145km (1,954 miles) wide.
The White House issued a proclamation halting construction on the same day that Trump’s successor, Democrat Joe Biden, was sworn into office — on January 20, 2021.
“Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution,” Biden’s proclamation reads. “It is a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security.”
The border construction had drawn criticism from humanitarian, Indigenous and environmental groups that objected to the increased dangers posed by the new border fencing and the destructive practices used to erect it.
Still, the Republican-led state of Texas has continued to build barriers along the southern border in an attempt to crack down on irregular crossings.
The barrier — a chain of giant buoys anchored to the riverbed — has sparked territorial concerns with Mexico, as well as fears it may lead to increased drownings.