Steve Bannon, three others charged with fraud in border wall fundraising campaign
New York federal prosecutors on Thursday charged President Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon and three others with defrauding donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars as part of a fundraising campaign purportedly aimed at supporting Trump’s border wall.
Bannon, 66, was arrested at 7:30 a.m. Thursday near Westbrook, Connecticut, on the yacht of exiled Chinese dissident Guo Wengui, according to two law enforcement officials. Federal agents, officials from the United States Postal Inspection Service and the United States Coast Guard, assisted, officials said.
During an initial court appearance in New York later Thursday, Bannon pleaded not guilty and was set to be released on bail including a $5 million bond to be secured by $1.75 million in cash or real property. As part of his bail conditions, he will be prohibited from travel on private airplanes, yachts or boats without permission from the court.
Appearing via video conference, Bannon sported a white face mask, a button-down shirt and a sunburn.
As he exited the federal courthouse, Bannon removed his mask and waved at supporters before confronting a group of reporters.”This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” Bannon said.
The four men were indicted for allegedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to an online crowdfunding campaign called We Build the Wall for personal expenses, among other things. Bannon and another defendant, Brian Kolfage, promised donors that the campaign, which ultimately raised more than $25 million, was “a volunteer organization” and that “100% of the funds raised…will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose,” according to the indictment unsealed Thursday.
But instead, according to prosecutors, Bannon, through a non-profit under his control, used more than $1 million from We Build the Wall to “secretly” pay Kolfage and cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses.
Kolfage, according to the charges, spent more than $350,000 of the donations on personal expenses, including cosmetic surgery, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, payments toward a boat, home renovations, jewelry, personal tax payments and credit card debt.
Bannon, Kolfage and the other two defendants, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Kolfage, Badolato and Shea didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday.
“As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction,” Acting Manhattan US Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement. “While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle.”
The indictment describes a sleight-of-hand perpetrated by the defendants on donors to the We Build the Wall group. Within days of launching the group, Kolfage, along with Bannon and Badolato, made a “secret agreement” in which Kolfage would be paid “$100k upfront [and] then 20 [per] month,” according to the indictment. To disguise the transfer of the money to Kolfage, Bannon agreed to pass the payments through the non-profit he controlled, according to prosecutors, and in February 2019, Bannon and Badolato directed the non-profit to pay Kolfage $100,000 from We Build the Wall.