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Bannon charged with fraud, money laundering, conspiracy in ‘We Build the Wall’

Just weeks after being convicted of contempt of Congress, the longtime Trump ally faces a state indictment in New York

Trump ally and right-wing activist Stephen K. Bannon surrendered to prosecutors in New York on Sept. 8, facing a state-level criminal indictment. (Video: AP)

NEW YORK — Stephen K. Bannon has been charged with money laundering, fraud and conspiracy in connection with the “We Build the Wall” fundraising scheme for which he received a federal pardon during Donald Trump’s final days in the White House, with state prosecutors alleging that donors were misled about how their contributions would be used.

Bannon, 68 — who is awaiting sentencing in Washington after being convicted this summer of contempt of Congress — was walked into New York Supreme Court in handcuffs on Thursday and pleaded not guilty to the state charges through his attorney. He had turned himself in that morning.

The conduct described in the indictment closely resembles what was alleged in a federal case brought by Justice Department officials more than two years ago, during Trump’s presidency, when Bannon was yanked off a yacht and taken into federal court to face charges.

But while federal prosecutors accused Bannon of personally pocketing $1 million from the fundraising scheme, the 25-page state indictment focuses on his alleged role funneling We Build the Wall funds through an unnamed nonprofit to pay the leader of We Build the Wall, despite explicit, repeated pledges to donors that their money would not be used for that purpose.

Bannon “acted as the architect of a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud thousands of donors across the country — including hundreds of Manhattan residents,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) said in a statement issued after the indictment was unsealed.

None of the charges in the indictment are eligible for bail in New York, and Bannon was released after the hearing. New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan granted a request from prosecutors to have Bannon surrender any passports or passport cards he possesses and barred him from applying for any new travel documents.

David Schoen, one of Bannon’s lawyers, said the request wasn’t necessary. “He’s not going anyplace,” Schoen argued. “He intends to stay and fight these charges all the way through.”

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Both before and after the hearing, Bannon told reporters he believes the timing of the case is an effort by Democrats to stop him from advocating for right-wing candidates in the November midterm elections.

“This is all about 60 days until the day!” he said outside the district attorney’s office Thursday morning.

Bannon is accused of having orchestrated a plan to deceive donors — through emails, on the We Build the Wall website and in social media postings — telling them that the president and chief executive of We Build the Wall would “not take a penny” in salary and that all money collected from the site would be spent on wall construction. That president and chief executive is not named in the indictment but was identified in federal proceedings as Brian Kolfage, a disabled veteran and the founder of We Build the Wall.

Kolfage took at least $250,000 of money donated to We Build the Wall in 2019, according to the new indictment. It describes text messages in which Bannon and others allegedly arranged for money to be transferred to the unnamed nonprofit, and from there distributed to Kolfage. The indictment also describes multiple transfers of money from We Build the Wall to the nonprofit, and to another, also unnamed, nonprofit.

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Neither Bragg nor New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), whose office worked with Bragg’s on the case, explained why Bannon was not charged directly with keeping money from the fundraising effort, as he was in the federal indictment. James said at a news conference that Bannon “basically stole millions of dollars to line his own pocket and those of other politically connected people.”

Of the counts in the indictment, the money laundering charges carries the biggest potential penalty, up to 15 years in prison. But none of the charges come with mandatory prison time upon conviction.

Bannon had been released on a $5 million bond in the federal We Build the Wall Indictment. Five months later, he was in the clear after Trump included him in a wave of clemency actions as one of his final acts in the White House.

Presidential pardons only apply to federal cases, making it possible for local prosecutors to bring charges covering the same ground that involve potential violations of applicable state statutes. Because Bannon was granted clemency in the federal case before a conviction, there is not expected to be a viable issue of double jeopardy in his new case.

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Three other men charged in the federal case, including Kolfage, were not pardoned. Kolfage and one of the other co-defendants pleaded guilty in federal court. A trial for another alleged participant, Timothy Shea, ended in a mistrial by hung jury in June.

Bannon’s ties to Trump landed him in legal trouble again in November 2021, when the Justice Department charged him with contempt of Congress after he refused to comply with a subpoena for records and testimony from the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.

Bannon was convicted in that case in late July and is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 21. Each of the two counts he was convicted on carries a minimum of 30 days in jail and up to a year.

Bragg and James have a pending criminal investigation into Trump and his business practices, while James’s office has a parallel civil probe which could result in a lawsuit that impacts the Trump Organization’s ability to operate.