Steve Bannon charged with fraud over Mexico wall funds
Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon has been arrested and charged with fraud over a fundraising campaign to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
Mr Bannon and three others defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with the “We Build the Wall” campaign, which raised $25m (£19m), the US Department of Justice (DoJ) said.
Mr Bannon received more than $1m, at least some of which he used to cover personal expenses, the DoJ said.
He is due to appear in court later.
The “We build the wall” campaign pledged to use donations to build segments of the border barrier – whose construction was a key Trump promise during the 2016 election – on private land.
But Audrey Strauss, the Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), said Mr Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea had “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalising on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretence that all of that money would be spent on construction”.
Mr Bannon had received more than $1m through a non-profit organisation he controlled, at least some of which he used to cover “hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses”, the DoJ said.
Meanwhile, Mr Kolfage – founder of “We Build the Wall” – covertly took $350,000 for his personal use, the statement said.
“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,” Ms Strauss said.
SDNY Inspector-in-Charge Philip R Bartlett said the four created “sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth”.
“This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist,” he said.
Mr Bannon and the three others launched the scheme in December 2018. the DoJ said, and during the campaign Mr Kolfage said that all of the money donated would go towards construction while Mr Bannon publicly said, “We’re a volunteer organisation”.
All four defendants 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.
Mr Bannon, 66, will appear in court in the SDNY. Mr Kolfage and Mr Badolato will appear in separate courts in Florida and Mr Shea will appear in Colorado.
The line between legitimate online political fundraising and swindling is sometimes a fine one. Federal prosecutors are now alleging that Steve Bannon, a former top political advisor for Donald Trump, crossed it.
Mr Bannon was one of those fringe figures who rode Trump’s improbable rise to the presidency to national prominence. His time in actual power at the White House was short-lived, however.
Donald Trump reportedly resented news reports painting Mr Bannon as the “brains” behind the president – a perception boosted by Mr Bannon’s willingness to talk with the press.
Since then he mostly has been confined to advocating for the president from the sidelines – and participating in sometimes questionable side projects like this wall foundation.
That this indictment comes out of the Southern District of New York, the federal prosecutorial office that has handled other high-profile cases involving Trump associates, will stir greater interest in the indictment. The district was itself the source of recent controversy when Attorney General Bill Barr abruptly fired its head, Geoffrey Berman.
After criticism, Mr Barr was forced to abandon his choice for a temporary replacement, and Mr Berman’s top deputy moved into the job, instead.
It was this woman, Audrey Strauss, who announced Mr Bannon’s indictment.