Bannon indicted on money laundering, conspiracy charges in border wall fundraising scheme

·Reporter
·7-min read

Former Donald Trump aide Steve Bannon was indicted in New York on state charges for his alleged role in a fundraising scheme to build a private border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Bannon, who surrendered to authorities on Thursday morning, pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment in Manhattan. He was released without bail.

According to an indictment, which was unsealed ahead of his initial court appearance, Bannon is being charged with multiple crimes, including conspiracy and money laundering, based on his work with We Build the Wall, a nonprofit that raised $25 million dollars through an online crowdfunding campaign to fund construction of a wall along the southern border.

Bannon faces a maximum sentence of between five and 15 years, if convicted on the most serious charge. We Build the Wall was also charged in the indictment.

“The simple truth is that it is a crime to profit off the backs of donors by making false pretenses,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said at a press conference on Thursday, where he announced the charges alongside New York Attorney General Letitia James. “We are here to say today in once voice, in Manhattan and in New York, you will be held accountable for defrauding donors.”

Steve Bannon stands in a group of people that includes police officers and holds up a finger and appears to be about to say something.
Steve Bannon arrives for court in New York on Thursday. (Alex Kent/AFP via Getty Images)

The Washington Post was first to report that Bannon, who was convicted in Washington, D.C., federal court last month of criminal contempt of Congress, had been indicted on state charges Tuesday night. The new state charges were expected to mirror those in a federal indictment from 2020 that alleged that Bannon and other associates defrauded We Build the Wall donors.

Bannon pleaded not guilty to federal fraud charges in that earlier case, before receiving a last-minute pardon from Trump on his way out of the White House.

But presidential pardons only apply to federal charges and do not preclude prosecutions at the state level. Shortly after Trump pardoned Bannon, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office began investigating his alleged involvement in the border wall scheme.

“There cannot be one set of rules for everyday Americans and another set of rules for the wealthy and powerful,” James said Thursday.

James said that Bannon “stands out as an example of this blatant inequality,” accusing the former Trump aide of using his “influence and connections to cheat everyday Americans” and then evade accountability by obtaining a presidential pardon.

Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News Thursday, but in a statement published by several news outlets Tuesday night, he accused District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat, of pursuing “phony charges against me 60 days before the midterm election,” suggesting that he was targeted because his podcast is popular among Trump supporters. The state’s probe into Bannon’s involvement in the crowdfunding scheme initially began under Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr.

“The SDNY did the exact same thing in August 2020 to try to take me out of the election,” Bannon said.

Leaders of We Build the Wall Inc. congregate around a podium with news microphones in front of a wall near a desert landscape.
Leaders of We Build the Wall discuss plans for future barrier construction along the U.S.-Mexico border, May 30, 2019, in Sunland Park, N.M. (Cedar Attanasio/AP)

Bannon’s arraignment in Manhattan state court comes just over two years after federal authorities arrested him on a luxury yacht off the coast of Connecticut. Federal prosecutors in New York’s southern district had charged Bannon — along with We Build the Wall founders Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea — with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

In a 24-page federal indictment, prosecutors outlined a cynical scheme in which Bannon and the others allegedly sought to capitalize on Trump supporters’ desire to fund a border wall — a core tenet of Trump’s 2016 campaign — in order to enrich themselves. Despite promising donors that 100 percent of the money raised would go toward building a wall on the southern border, Bannon and the others were accused of siphoning off hundreds of thousands of dollars of contributions to the campaign for their personal use.

While on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump frequently stoked anti-immigrant sentiments with his pledge to build a wall between the United States and Mexico and make Mexico pay for it. But once in office, Trump found that neither Mexico nor Congress would agree to foot the bill for his project.

Kolfage, a disabled Air Force veteran who’d previously helmed a collection of now defunct right-wing websites that trafficked in conspiracy theories and fake news, first created the GoFundMe campaign that would become We Build the Wall in the winter of 2018, after a stalemate over Trump’s demands for billions in federal funding for a border wall caused a government shutdown. The goal of the original campaign was to raise $1 billion, which Kolfage promised would be given entirely to the government for the purpose of constructing Trump’s border wall.

Though the campaign quickly went viral, receiving more than $13 million from over 213,000 people within roughly a week of its launch, it eventually became clear that neither the $1 billion goal nor the plan to give the funds directly to the federal government would be feasible.

Bannon allegedly got involved to help create We Build the Wall, Inc. after GoFundMe informed Kolfage that he would need to identify a legitimate nonprofit to which he could transfer the funds he’d raised for the wall campaign, or the money would have to be refunded to the donors.

Kolfage remained the face of the campaign, and messaging and donor outreach efforts centered on the promise — made on the organization’s website, in fundraising emails, and in media appearances — that he would “not take a penny of compensation,” ensuring that all of the money raised would go to funding border wall construction.

“Instead of pennies,” Bragg said, Kolfage “received more than $250,000 in a salary funded by donations, at least $140,000 of which we allege was laundered by Steve Bannon.”

Bragg called Bannon “the architect of a scheme” to secretly divert donated funds to Kolfage through a separate nonprofit, citing text messages referenced in the state indictment as evidence of this fraud.

According to the indictment, We Build the Wall “raised money from donors throughout the United States, including several hundred from New York County, based on the false representation that none of the money donated to WeBuildTheWall,Inc. would be used to pay” Kolfage’s salary.

Kolfage, who was not charged by New York prosecutors, is identified in the indictment as “Unindicted Co-Conspirator 1.” He did not respond to a request for comment from Yahoo News.

The We Build the Wall campaign ultimately raised $25 million and amassed an advisory board of high-profile Trump supporters and associates, including Blackwater USA founder Erik Prince and Kris Kobach, the aggressively anti-immigrant former Kansas secretary of state. Back in 2019, Yahoo News reported that the group had skirted local and federal regulations, and used intimidation and threats to quickly construct its first section of border wall on private property in Sunland Park, N.M., near El Paso.

Bannon, who served as Trump’s chief strategist during the 2016 campaign and then worked in the White House for several months, was the only one to receive a presidential pardon for the alleged scheme. Earlier this year, Kolfage and Badolato pleaded guilty to fraud charges in federal court. Shea’s case ended in a mistrial in June.

Bannon is separately facing hefty fines and potential jail time for failing to comply with a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. He was indicted by a federal grand jury last fall on two counts of criminal contempt of Congress for refusing to appear for a deposition and provide documents at the committee’s request, and a jury in Washington, D.C., found him guilty of both counts in July. Bannon has said he intends to appeal the conviction.