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Steve Bannon charged with defrauding donors in private effort to raise money for Trump’s border wall

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon was charged Aug. 20, 2020 with defrauding donors to an online fundraising campaign to build a border wall. (Video: Zach Purser Brown/The Washington Post)

Federal prosecutors in New York unsealed criminal charges Thursday against Stephen K. Bannon, President Trump’s former chief strategist, and three other men they alleged defrauded donors to a massive crowdfunding campaign that claimed to be raising money for construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a 23-page indictment, prosecutors said Bannon and another organizer, Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, lied when they claimed they would not take any compensation as part of the campaign, called “We Build the Wall.” Bannon, prosecutors alleged, received more than $1 million through a nonprofit entity he controlled, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage while keeping a “substantial portion” for himself.

The We Build the Wall campaign, publicly supported by several of the president’s allies, raised more than $25 million through hundreds of thousands of donors, federal prosecutors said. During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised repeatedly that, if elected, he would construct a wall along the southern border — funded by Mexico. As president, he has made no headway on getting Mexico to pay for the wall and has tangled with Congress over whether U.S. taxpayers should fund the project.

President Trump responded Aug. 20 to news of the arrest of his ex-political adviser Steve Bannon, saying he hadn't worked with Bannon for "years." (Video: The Washington Post)

The We Build the Wall organization offered an outlet for frustrated Trump supporters to voice their continued support for the core campaign promise of Trump’s run for office, including by making financial donations to support its construction.

Prosecutors alleged that Bannon and Kolfage along with two others — Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea — routed payments from the crowdfunding campaign through the nonprofit and another shell company, disguising them with fake invoices to help keep their personal pay secret.

During his political rise, Stephen K. Bannon was a man with no fixed address

All four were arrested Thursday and charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. After being later released on bond, Bannon emerged from the federal courthouse in Manhattan, taking off his mask and smiling at a bank of television cameras. “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall,” he said.

With the indictment of Bannon, prosecutors have now brought criminal charges against more than half a dozen people who worked for Trump’s campaign or his administration or advised him personally. Those who have been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal crimes include Trump’s former campaign chairman, his deputy campaign chairman, his former personal attorney and his former national security adviser.

Some faced allegations of personal enrichment similar to what Bannon must now fight in court. Others were accused of trying to hinder investigations of Trump’s conduct. The president has not been accused of any crimes by law enforcement, though special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, whom the Justice Department appointed to examine Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, raised significant questions about whether he had obstructed justice. Trump, meanwhile, has excoriated law enforcement probes of him and those in his orbit, alleging he is being unfairly targeted.

Bannon, a law enforcement official said, was taken into custody off the coast of Westbrook, Conn., while aboard a 150-foot yacht called the Lady May owned by a friend and business associate, Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui — a vocal online critic of the Chinese government who was once close with that country’s intelligence service but is now wanted by authorities in Beijing on charges of fraud, blackmail and bribery. The law enforcement official, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

A Coast Guard boat approached the yacht and disembarked a team to sweep it before federal agents boarded it to make the arrest, said Chief Warrant Officer Mariana O’Leary, a Coast Guard spokeswoman. Another law enforcement official said that Attorney General William P. Barr was briefed about the matter in advance. Bannon told others he had been cruising aboard the ship for months.

At a court appearance Thursday afternoon, Bannon, through an attorney, pleaded not guilty. A judge allowed him to be released on $5 million bond, secured by $1.75 million in assets, which he has to post within two weeks. A judge ordered him to surrender his travel documentation and not use private planes or yachts without court permission.

Bannon appeared via a video feed from a courthouse jail cell wearing a white mask, his forehead slightly sunburned.

Badolato and Shea, after appearances in Colorado and Florida, were similarly allowed to be released on bond — with restrictions on their travel — pending future court appearances in New York. Court records did not indicate that Badolato and Shea had entered any type of plea.

Bannon, 66, served on Trump’s presidential campaign and then as the White House’s chief strategist. He was ousted in the summer of 2017 amid what appeared to be a major falling out with Trump, who derided his onetime confidant as “Sloppy Steve.”

Asked about the arrest Thursday, Trump said he felt “very badly” but asserted of Bannon, “I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time.” Trump said he felt the private fundraising effort was “something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.”

“I don’t like that project,” the president said. “I thought it was being done for showboating reasons.”

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Trump had “no involvement in this project” and pointed to a tweet he issued last month in response to a ProPublica report about a privately funded section of wall, saying: “I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads. It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work.”

“President Trump has always felt the Wall must be a government project and that it is far too big and complex to be handled privately,” McEnany said in a statement.

Trump gets rid of Stephen Bannon, a top proponent of his nationalist agenda

Those involved in the project had close ties to the administration, and campaign memorabilia was often pictured on the privately built section of the border wall.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. was a guest at a symposium hosted by the We Build the Wall group in New Mexico in 2019, praising the organization as “private enterprise at its finest.”

“Doing it better, faster, cheaper than anything else,” he added, in comments the group highlighted on its website.

Amanda Miller, a spokeswoman for Trump Jr., said that his only involvement with the group was the 2019 speech and that he had not been previously aware that his comments were featured on the group’s website, nor had he given permission. “His previous praise of the group was based on what he was led to believe about their supposed intention to help build the wall on our southern border and if he and others were deceived, the group deserves to be held accountable for their actions,” she said in a statement.

One of the group’s advisers, Kris Kobach, is the former Kansas secretary of state known for his hard-line views of immigration and close ties to the Trump administration. Earlier this month, Kobach was defeated in a Republican primary for U.S. Senate in Kansas.

In January 2019, Kobach told the New York Times that he had described the organization to President Trump in a personal phone call and that he had given it his 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.’ ”

Other advisers included Erik Prince, a conservative activist and defense contractor close to Bannon, as well as former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and former Major League Baseball star Curt Schilling.

In a statement, an attorney for Prince said he joined the group’s advisory board because he was a believer in its mission to build a wall on the southern border. “He had nothing to do with the conduct alleged in today’s indictment, was never contacted in connection with any investigation, and doesn’t know anything about it,” attorney Matthew L. Schwartz said.

Efforts to reach Kobach, Tancredo and Schilling via phone and email for comment were unsuccessful.

The case was investigated by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service and charged in court by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. Two months ago, Barr had moved to oust Geoffrey Berman as the U.S. attorney there and replace him on an acting basis with Craig Carpenito, the U.S. attorney in New Jersey.

The Bannon investigation was ongoing at that time, as was a probe involving Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney. Berman initially refused to step down, forcing Trump to fire him and promote Berman’s deputy, Audrey Strauss, to replace him on an interim basis.

The shake-up alarmed congressional Democrats, who accused Barr of maneuvering to quash investigations with consequences for the president’s personal interests. Berman later told the House Judiciary Committee that the appointment of Carpenito or another outsider “would have been unprecedented, unnecessary and unexplained and would have resulted in the delay and disruption of the office’s investigations.”

Ousted U.S. attorney who investigated Trump associates says Barr pushed him to resign and take another job

Bannon was brought in to lead Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016 after it had cycled through two other campaign managers and was trailing Democrat Hillary Clinton in the polls. He was the impetus for some of Trump’s populist ideas as well as a provocateur, coming up with ideas such as bringing Bill Clinton’s accusers to a debate after damaging audio emerged of Trump suggesting he could sexually assault women. Before working for Trump’s campaign, Bannon had promoted many of the same ideas that Trump espoused during the race, via the conservative news site he had run, Breitbart.

After joining the White House as the president’s top political strategist, he kept a whiteboard of campaign promises in his West Wing office, along with newspaper articles on which Trump had written messages to him with a Sharpie.

He was ousted after seven months in the White House, having clashed with a number of senior officials — most notably the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Bannon was frequently profane and was accused by a number of other administration officials of leaking damaging information about them.

But he kept a prominent role in Trump’s Washington, throwing parties at his Capitol Hill townhouse, which he called the “Breitbart Embassy,” and hosting prominent government officials and media figures.

In early 2018, Trump viciously attacked Bannon for his comments published in Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury,” which included on-the-record quotes by Bannon criticizing Trump’s family, the president and the White House’s operations.

He has slowly come back into Trump’s orbit, though he is not in regular touch with him. The president appreciated Bannon’s fierce defense of him during his impeachment, and Bannon hosted a pro-Trump podcast with Jason Miller, now a Trump campaign strategist, until earlier this year. Trump spoke to Bannon earlier this summer about the campaign, but it was a brief conversation, according to three people told about it.

In private, Bannon was often critical of the president’s focus and performance in the White House, people who know him say, though he has remained publicly supportive. His arrest pleased many Republicans who had battled Bannon for years over the party’s future and believed he had steered Trump in a dangerous direction.

“Sometimes people can exceed your expectations, and other times they end up pretty much exactly where you anticipated,” said Josh Holmes, a top adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). He also posted a meme on Twitter of McConnell grinning.

Kolfage, 38, of Miramar Beach, Fla., is a military veteran who in 2004 was severely injured in a rocket attack while he was stationed in Baghdad. According to the We Build the Wall website, he lost both legs and his right arm instantly and was in a coma for three weeks. He would later take a civilian role in the Air Force, work on a veterans advisory committee for then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and found a coffee company.

Kolfage’s wife declined to comment. It was unclear Thursday evening whether he had appeared in court.

Prosecutors described in the indictment how Kolfage and others in December 2018 launched the wall-building fundraising campaign to immediate success, raising almost $17 million in the first week — money they claimed would be given to the federal government. But with success came scrutiny, and GoFundMe, the site the group had been using to collect funds, suspended the campaign and warned Kolfage the donations would be refunded if he could not identify a legitimate nonprofit to which they would be transferred.

Around that time, Kolfage recruited Bannon and Badolato, prosecutors alleged. The two took significant control of the campaign’s day-to-day activities and oversaw creation of a nonprofit, We Build the Wall Inc., to which funds could be transferred and then spent on private construction of a border wall, prosecutors alleged.

Badolato has been a business partner in ventures with Bannon for more than 15 years. Bannon used Badolato’s Florida address when founding his Victory Film Group, a conservative movie studio that helped launch Bannon as a public figure in the conservative movement. And Badolato was listed as an executive working on several Bannon-connected movies, including “The Undefeated,” a 2011 film about Sarah Palin that Bannon wrote and directed. An attorney for Badolato declined to comment Thursday.

The We Build the Wall group claimed publicly and to the crowdfunding website through which it had initially raised funds that Kolfage would take no salary and that “100 percent” of the money raised would be spent on wall construction, prosecutors alleged. It also agreed that existing donors would have to opt in to having their funds transferred to the new nonprofit.

“I’m taking nothing! Zero,” Kolfage wrote on social media. He also wrote a mass email to donors asking them to buy from his coffee company because that was how he “keeps his family fed and a roof over their head.”

For his part, Bannon said during interviews, “we’re a volunteer organization,” prosecutors alleged.

Privately, prosecutors alleged, the men discussed how that messaging would drive donations and opt-ins and from January to October 2019 they collected more than $25 million from new or existing donors. And contrary to their public assertions, they schemed to make sure they were paid, the indictment says.

“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,” Strauss, the acting Manhattan U.S. attorney, said in a statement announcing the case. “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.”

In total, prosecutors alleged, Kolfage received more than $350,000 in donor funds, routed through various accounts and shell companies to help keep them secret, and used them to pay for home renovations, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, and personal taxes and credit card debt.

In court documents, authorities cited a boat called the “Warfighter” as an asset purchased with proceeds from the scheme. According to a video he posted to Instagram, Kolfage used the boat in a “Trump boat parade” in Destin, Fla., on July 4. The Trump campaign has promoted the parades of boats decked out in Trump signs and banners.

Bannon and the others also received hundreds of thousands of dollars, spending it on travel, hotels and personal credit card debts, the indictment says.

After learning of authorities’ investigation from a financial institution in October, prosecutors alleged, Kolfage and Badolato began communicating on encrypted messaging apps and added a statement to the campaign’s website that Kolfage would be paid a salary starting in January. On Wednesday, Kolfage tweeted that he had deleted the campaign from GoFundMe’s site, alleging it had blocked a separate attempt by him to raise money for those wanting to sue the Black Lives Matter group. He made a similar assertion on Bannon’s podcast.

The We Build the Wall project had worked with Fisher Industries, a North Dakota company. Trump has regularly promoted the company, saying it should get a bigger border contract — comments that have concerned some officials in the Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Homeland Security.

Earlier this year, Fisher received its biggest contract yet for work associated with the border wall. In a statement, the company said that it worked on two segments of border wall with We Build the Wall but that both are complete and the company has no other projects with the group.

Jacobs reported from New York. Alice Crites, Alex Horton, Ellen Nakashima and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.