Bannon, three others charged with defrauding donors of ‘We Build The Wall’ campaign
Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon and three others were arrested 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 said Thursday.
Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea allegedly defrauded donors of the online crowdfunding campaign known as “We Build The Wall,” which raised more than $25 million. The four defendants are expected to appear in court Thursday afternoon.
“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 U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said.
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.
Bannon, who also served as chief executive of President Trump’s campaign in 2016, is 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 nearly 3 1/2 year prison sentence of his former adviser Roger Stone in July, just days before Stone was scheduled to report to a federal corrections facility.
Bannon’s attorney did not immediately respond when asked for comment on the indictment, which 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.
Following the indictment, Trump said he hadn’t dealt with Bannon “for a very long period of time.”
“I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons,” Trump said. “It was something that I very much felt was inappropriate to be doing.”
Trump was made aware of the “We Build The Wall” campaign shortly after its launch. Former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who was an advisory board member for the nonprofit established by the campaign, told The New York Times in January 2019 that the effort had received the president’s blessing.
“I talked with the president, and the We Build The Wall Effort came up,” Kobach said. “The president said ‘the project has my blessing, and you can tell the media that.’ ”
A website for the campaign still includes endorsements from the president’s son Donald Trump Jr., former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and Kimberly Guilfoyle, a top fundraising official for the 2020 campaign.
When asked for comment by a pool reporter on Thursday, a White House spokesperson said, “I refer you to [the Department of Justice], this is not a White House matter.” The Justice Department did not immediately respond when asked for comment.
We Build The Wall did not immediately respond to a message 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.
According to 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 and nonprofits between January and October of 2019.
Prosecutors said one nonprofit controlled by Bannon received more than $1 million, some of which he passed on to Kolfage, while taking a “substantial portion” for personal gain.
In October, the indictment says, 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.
— Updated at 1:06 p.m.