FILE - In this May 27, 2019 file photo, former White House strategist Steve Bannon pauses prior to an interview in Paris. Bannon was arrested Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, on charges that he and three others ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme “We Build The Wall.” The charges were contained in an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

FILE - In this May 27, 2019 file photo, former White House strategist Steve Bannon pauses prior to an interview in Paris. Bannon was arrested Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, on charges that he and three others ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme “We Build The Wall.” The charges were contained in an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

Ex-Trump aide Bannon pleads not guilty in border wall scheme

Bannon was taken into custody around 7 a.m. by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service on a luxury yacht

President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall in federal court Thursday, hours after he was pulled from a yacht off the coast of Connecticut and arrested.

He and three others were charged in an indictment unsealed Thursday in Manhattan federal court.

At his hearing the same day, Bannon had his hands cuffed in front of him while a large, white mask covered most of his face. He rocked back and forward as he sat on a chair in a holding cell at Manhattan federal court, from where he appeared via video as his lawyers were on the telephone.

The magistrate judge approved Bannon’s release on $5 million bail, secured by $1.75 million in assets.

The “We Build The Wall” fundraiser was headed by men who pushed their close ties to President Trump, giving their effort a legitimacy that helped them raise more than $25 million.

But according to the criminal charges unsealed Thursday, much of the money never made it to the wall. Instead, it was used to line the pockets of group members, including Bannon, who served in Trump’s White House and worked for his campaign. He allegedly took over $1 million, using some to secretly pay co-defendant Brian Kolfage, the founder of the project, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.

The arrests make Bannon the latest addition to a startlingly long list of Trump associates who have been prosecuted, including his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, whom Bannon replaced, his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump has also made clear that he is willing to use his near-limitless pardon power to help political allies escape legal jeopardy, most recently commuting the sentence of longtime political adviser Roger Stone.

Bannon was taken into custody around 7 a.m. by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service on a 150-foot (45-meter) luxury yacht called Lady May, which was off the coast of Connecticut, authorities said. The boat is owned by exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui and currently for sale for nearly $28 million.

Neither Bannon, nor his spokesperson or attorney responded to requests for comment Thursday. Kolfage did not respond either. Also charged were Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, the owner of an energy drink company called Winning Energy. The company’s cans feature a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain “12 oz. of liberal tears.”

Other prominent members of the wall group included former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, its general counsel; Erik Prince, founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater; former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado; and former major league baseball pitcher Curtis Schilling. They were not named in the indictment.

Trump quickly distanced himself from Bannon while claiming he knew nothing about the project and never believed in a privately financed barrier.

“When I read about it, I didn’t like it. I said this is for government, this isn’t for private people. And it sounded to me like showboating,” he told reporters at the White House, adding that he felt “very badly” about the situation.

An immigration plan unveiled by Trump last year included a proposal to allow the public to donate toward his long-promised wall, as the Kolfage group had originally said was its mission before changing it to private construction of their own wall. But Trump later denounced the project publicly, tweeting last month that he “disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads” and claiming, “It was only done to make me look bad.”

Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press he had been made aware of the investigation into Bannon months ago but did not say whether the president had been informed.

According to the indictment, the defendants used fake invoices, another non-profit and sham vendor arrangements to try to hide their efforts to siphon money. Under the arrangement, Bannon and his co-defendants allegedly paid Kolfage $100,000 up front and an additional $20,000 monthly, all while claiming they served as volunteers and that Kolfag was not paid.

The indictment said Kolfage “went so far as to send mass emails to his donors asking them to purchase coffee from his unrelated business, telling donors the coffee company was the only way he ‘keeps his family fed and a roof over their head.’”

Kolfage eventually spent some of the over $350,000 he received on home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.

Charges included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Originally called “We the People Build the Wall,” the campaign launched in December 2018 and raised approximately $17 million in its first week. But it soon drew scrutiny. The crowdfunding site that hosted it suspended the campaign and warned that it would return donations unless the money was transferred to a legitimate non-profit. Bannon was brought in around that time.

It originally promoted a project for 3 miles of fence posts in South Texas that was ultimately built and largely funded by Fisher Industries, which has received about $2 billion in funding for wall contracts. The company’s CEO, Tommy Fisher, did not respond to calls for comment.

In 2019, Kolfage and Fisher successfully constructed a half-mile of bollard-style border fence on privately donated land in New Mexico near of El Paso, Texas. Construction faced resistance from local authorities in New Mexico and Texas and drew accusations of improper permitting. In May, federal officials found that a section of Fisher’s privately funded wall violated flood construction standards along the Rio Grande. It also caused erosion.

Dustin Stockton, who helped start the campaign and then left the project to work on the upcoming presidential election, said it seemed clear that prosecutors were “attacking political infrastructure that supports President Trump right before the election.” He was not charged in the case.

Benjamin Harnwell, who with Bannon launched an institute in Italy to train future populists, called the indictment “spurious” and evidence that the “forces of darkness” would stop at nothing to destroy Bannon.

The combative Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign in its critical final months. A voice of nationalist, outsider conservatism, he later served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Trump’s administration and was at the forefront of many of the administration’s most contentious policies, including its travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers and was pushed out.

Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and as a Hollywood producer before turning to politics, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room,” which began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.

A day before the indictment was unsealed, Kolfage was a featured guest on the show.

ALSO READ: Trump eager to troll Biden outside his Scranton birthplace

___

Long and Colvin reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York; Nomaan Merchant in Northbrook, Illinois; Cedar Attanasio in Santa Fe, New Mexico; Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut; Mike Balsamo in Cleveland; Nicole Winfield in Rome and Michael Biesecker in Washington contributed to this report.

Larry Neumeister, Colleen Long And Jill Colvin, The Associated Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Donald Trump

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Nurse Vicki Niemi administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to Joyce, 88, on Mar. 23, 2020 at the Terrace Sportsplex. All adults in Terrace are now eligible to register for a COVID-19 vaccination. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
All adults in Terrace can now register for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment

Community members can register by calling 833-838-2323 or visiting getvaccinated.gov.bc.ca

April 2020 to March 2021 was the second wettest year on record since at least 1969, according to Environment Canada. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
VIDEO: Terrace records wettest spell in over a half-century

Terrace saw close to 1,500 millimetres of precipitation between April 2020 and March 2021

Terrace fire department responded to a call from Skeena Saw Mills at the early hours of Friday morning. (Binny Paul/ Terrace Standard)
UPDATE: Fire crews respond to early morning incident at Skeena Sawmills

No injuries were reported as mill workers immediately alerted the fire department after seeing smoke

Terrace Tim Hortons on Keith Ave. experienced a fire during the morning of April 4, 2021. (Ben Bogstie/Terrace Standard)
Nature of Tim Hortons fire made it difficult to detect: Deputy fire chief

Fire likely burned undetected inside a wall, resulting in extensive damage

Restaurant patrons enjoy the weather on a patio in Vancouver, B.C., Monday, April 5, 2021. The province has suspended indoor dining at restaurants and pubs until at least April 19 in B.C. due to a spike in COVID-19 numbers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
B.C. sets new COVID-19 daily record with 1,293 cases Thursday

New order allows workplace closures when infections found

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

A vehicle that was driven through the wall of a parkade at Uptown Shopping Centre and into the nearby Walmart on April 9 was removed through another hole in the wall later that night. (Photo via Saanich Police Department and Ayush Kakkar)
Vehicle launched into B.C. Walmart removed following rescue of trapped workers

Crews cut new hole in parkade wall to remove vehicle safely

Four members with Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans were out at Cultus Lake on March 28 and 29 hauling trash out of the waters. (Henry Wang)
PHOTOS: Out-of-town divers remove 100s of pounds of trash from Cultus Lake

Members of Divers for Cleaner Lakes and Oceans hauled out 470 pounds of trash over two days

As of Saturday, April 10, people born in 1961 are the latest to be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. (Black Press files)
B.C. residents age 60+ can now register to get their COVID-19 vaccine

Vaccine registration is now open to people born in 1961 or earlier

A new saline gargle test, made in B.C., will soon be replacing COVID-19 nasal swab tests for kids. (PHSA screenshot)
Take-home COVID-19 tests available for some B.C. students who fall ill at school

BC Children’s Hospital plans to provide 1,200 kits to Vancouver district schools this April

Ruming Jiang and his dog Chiu Chiu are doing fine following a brush with hypothermia that saw several people work together to get them out of the Fraser River near Langley’s Derby Reach Park on March 25, 2021 (Special to the Advance Times)
Man finds men who rescued him from drowning in B.C.’s Fraser River

A grateful Ruming Jiang says he will thank them again, this time in person when the pandemic ends

Tyson Ginter, 7, is proud of his latest Hot Wheels he recently received by Quesnel RCMP Const. Matt Joyce. (Photo submitted)
B.C. Mountie handing out toy cars to light up children’s faces

‘A lot of times it will be the only interaction they have with the police,’ says Const. Matt Joyce

Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam speaks during a technical briefing on the COVID pandemic in Canada, Friday, January 15, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Canada’s ICUs see near-record of COVID-19 patients last week as variant cases double

Last week, Canadian hospitals treated an average of 2,500 patients with COVID-19, daily, up 7% from the previous week

University of Victoria rowing coach Barney Williams at the University of Victoria in Victoria, B.C. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
UVic, women’s rowing coach deny former athlete’s allegation of verbal abuse

Lily Copeland alleges coach Barney Williams would stand close to her and speak aggressively in the sauna

Most Read