Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon was charged with fraud by federal prosecutors in connection with a border wall fundraising effort.
Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser to President Donald Trump, was one of four people charged by federal prosecutors with fraud in connection with a border wall fundraising effort that raised more than $25 million, officials said Thursday.
The charges, unsealed in Manhattan, accuse Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea with “defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors” in the “We Build the Wall” GoFundMe crowdfunding campaign to finance one of Trump’s signature programs.
All four were arrested Thursday morning and are likely to make their first court appearances later in the day.
“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.
As part of the alleged scheme, according to federal prosecutors, Kolfage, the founder of the campaign, “repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would ‘not take a penny in salary or compensation’ and that ‘100% of the funds raised … will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose.’”
“Those representations were false,” prosecutors said, asserting that hundreds of thousands of dollars were secretly routed to the four men.
More than $350,000 was allegedly routed to Kolfage, and Bannon received more than $1 million.
Andrew Badolato: Bannon’s relationship goes back decades, used address to vote in 2016
Kolfage began raising money through the GoFundMe website in December 2018. Court records say the campaign claimed to raise funds for the construction of a wall along the southern border between the USA and Mexico.
Within the first week, it raised $17 million, and the founders claimed that all of the money would go to assist in wall construction.
The campaign, according to court documents, drew early scrutiny as questions emerged about Kolfage’s background. GoFundMe suspended it shortly after and warned Kolfage it would not return the funds raised – more than $20 million – unless he identified a nonprofit group that would receive the money.
Brian Kolfage, We Build The Wall founder, speaks at a press conference Thursday, May 30, in Sunland Park, New Mexico.
El Paso Times
GoFundMe didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
All four men are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Attorney General William Barr, who ousted Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in June at Trump’s request, was briefed in advance of the case involving Bannon, a law enforcement official said.
Trump’s response to Bannon’s arrest
Trump: Bannon arrest ‘sad,’ didn’t know about it
Trump said Thursday he felt “very badly” for Bannon.
“I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time,” he said, adding that he didn’t “know anything about the project at all.”
Yet he said he was opposed to the project because he thought it was being done for “showboating reasons.”
“It was something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing,” he said.
In 2019, Trump ally Kris Kobach told The New York Times that the president gave the wall campaign his “blessing.”
Earlier that year, Donald Trump Jr. lauded the project at a rally featuring Kolfage in New Mexico, near a section of wall funded by the project.
“This (privately funded border wall) is what capitalism is all about,” the president’s son told the crowd. “This is private enterprise at its finest. Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else. What you guys are doing is amazing.”
Biden campaign’s response: No surprise
The charges were disclosed in the midst of the Democratic National Convention where former Vice President Joe Biden was poised to accept the party’s presidential nomination in the run-up to the election in November.
Kate Bedingfield, a Biden campaign spokeswoman, said Thursday that Bannon’s indictment came as no surprise.
“No one needed a federal indictment to know that Steve Bannon is a fraud,” Bedingfield said. “Donald Trump has run the most corrupt administration in American history. He has consistently used his office to enrich himself, his family and his cronies. Is it really any surprise that yet another one of the grifters that he has surrounded himself and placed in the highest levels of government was just indicted? Sadly, it is not.”
Before Bannon’s indictment, six former Trump advisers were charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
Steve Bannon, Kris Kobach, Brian Kolfage, and David Clarke Jr. speak at We Build The Wall town hall.
Bannon exited the White House three years ago after serving as a senior adviser, ending a turbulent tenure as an advocate for hard-line immigration and trade policies. He clashed repeatedly with other advisers from the start of Trump’s term.
His departure came after mounting public pressure related to the violent white nationalist demonstrations in Charlotesville, Virginia, and an interview in which he attacked colleagues and undercut Trump’s positions on China and North Korea.
Bannon’s alignment with the so-called alt-right movement, which includes many white supremacists, made him a lightning rod for criticism, accelerating his exit.
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Who is Brian Kolfage?
Kolfage, the founder of the wall campaign, is an Iraq War veteran who lost his legs and right hand in 2004 after an enemy rocket landed a few feet away from him at Balad Air Base, according to his website. Kolfage was hospitalized for nearly a year at Walter Reed Medical Center, according to a profile by the Military Times.
He was awarded the Purple Heart, according to his website. A resolution by the state House of Representatives in Hawaii, where he was raised, honored him in 2018.
Though Trump made the construction of a border wall the centerpiece of his campaign, he began to distance himself from the private fundraising effort in July.
In a tweet, Trump said he did not approve of a section of border wall in Texas that was funded by the private campaign, claiming that the construction was of poor quality and that it was “only done to make me look bad.“
“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” Trump tweeted. “It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles.”
After Trump’s tweet, Kolfage posted one of his own saying the privately funded section of wall had been approved by the president’s administration.
“The private wall that @WeBuildtheWall built and funded is @DHSgov @CBP ENDORSED and APPROVED. Never forget it,” Kolfage said.
Contributing: Bart Jansen, Alan Gomez
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