August 21, 2020
Steve Bannon—the architect of the Trump campaign’s 2016 win and #45’s former chief strategist in the White House—has been arrested along with three others and charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors who contributed to a fundraising campaign for a private border wall, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced on August 20, according to a report by The Hill.
Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea allegedly defrauded donors to the online crowdfunding campaign known as We Build the Wall, which raised more than $25 million. The four defendants were expected to appear in court Thursday afternoon.
Bannon is just the latest member of the president’s inner circle to face criminal charges:
- Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his communications with a Russian diplomat. He has since backed out of a plea agreement, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) is seeking to withdraw its case against him.
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, is serving more than seven years in prison on an array of bank and tax fraud charges.
- And Trump commuted the three-year-and-four-months prison sentence of his former adviser Roger Stonein July, just days before Stone was scheduled to report to a federal corrections facility.
In a formal press release from the SDNY, Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “[Starting in approximately December 2018] …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.
She added, “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. We thank the USPIS for their partnership in investigating this case, and we remain dedicated to rooting out and prosecuting fraud wherever we find it.”
According to The Hill’s report, the four men are facing charges including one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.
The indictment suggests that federal prosecutors in New York were investigating the organization as early as last October, while Geoffrey Berman was the office’s U.S. attorney. The Trump administration forced Berman out of his position in June in a high-profile spat during which the prosecutor initially refused to resign.
When asked for comment by a pool reporter on Thursday, a White House spokesperson said, “I refer you to DOJ; this is not a White House matter.”
We Build the Wall did not immediately respond to a message from The Hill seeking comment.
Kolfage launched We Build the Wall on GoFundMe in late 2018—quickly raising more than $20 million, before the site threatened to remove his page unless he identified a valid recipient of the funds.
Based on the indictment, Kolfage, Bannon and Badolato then formed a nonprofit called “We Build the Wall, Inc.” to receive the GoFundMe money.
Despite Kolfage’s promises that he wouldn’t be taking a salary, federal prosecutors alleged that the group of defendants schemed to pass along hundreds of thousands of dollars to him to help “fund his lavish lifestyle.”
Kolfage allegedly took a total of $350,000 from the organization, passed through a series of bank accounts, nonprofits and bank accounts between January and October of 2019.
In October, prosecutors allege, the defendants realized they might be under criminal investigation, halted their secret payment scheme and amended the organization’s website to note that Kolfage would be paid a salary beginning this January.
Research contact: @thehill