Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser to President Donald Trump, was one of four people charged by federal prosecutors with fraud in connection with a border wall fundraising effort that raised more than $25 million, officials said Thursday.
The charges, unsealed in Manhattan, accuse Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea with “defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors” in the “We Build the Wall” crowdfunding campaign to finance one of Trump’s signature programs.
All four were arrested Thursday morning and are expected to make their first court appearances later in the day.
“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,” acting U.S Attorney Audrey Strauss said.
As part of the alleged scheme, according to federal prosecutors, Kolfage, the founder of the campaign, “repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that “100% of the funds raised … will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose.”
“Those representations were false,” prosecutors said, asserting that hundreds of thousands of dollars were secretly routed to the four men.
More than $350,000 was allegedly secretly routed to Kolfage while Bannon received more than $1 million.
Kolfage began raising the funds through GoFundMe, a crowdfunding website, in December 2018. The fundraising site has since been taken down, but court records say it claimed to raise funds for the construction of a wall along the southern border between the U.S. and Mexico.
Within the first week, the campaign raised $17 million, with the founders claiming that all of the money would go to assist in wall construction.
The campaign, according to court documents, drew early scrutiny as questions emerged about Kolfage’s background. GoFundMe suspended it shortly after and warned Kolfage it would not return the funds raised — more than $20 million — unless he identified a nonprofit that would receive the money.
GoFundMe didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
All four 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.
The White House declined to comment on the charges.
Bannon exited the White House three years ago after serving as a senior adviser, ending a turbulent tenure as an advocate for hard-line immigration and trade policies. He also clashed repeatedly with other advisers from the start of Trump’s term.
His departure came after mounting public pressure related to the violent white supremacist demonstrations in Charlotesville, Virginia, and following an interview in which he attacked colleagues and undercut Trump’s positions on China and North Korea.
Bannon’s alignment with the so-called alt-right movement, which includes many white supremacists, made him a lightening rod for criticism, accelerating his exit.
Kolfage, the founder of the wall campaign, is an Iraq war veteran who lost his legs and right hand in 2004 after an enemy rocket landed a few feet away from him at Balad Air Base, according to his website. Kolfage was hospitalized for nearly a year at Walter Reed Medical Center, according to a profile by the Military Times.
He was awarded the Purple Heart, according to his website. A resolution by the state House of Representatives in Hawaii, where he was raised, honored him in 2018.
While Trump made the construction of a border wall the centerpiece of his campaign, he appeared to distance himself from the private fundraising effort as recently as July.
In a tweet, Trump said that he did not approve of a section of border wall in Texas that was funded by the private campaign, claiming that the construction was of poor quality and that it was “only done to make me look bad.”
— US Attorney SDNY (@SDNYnews) August 20, 2020
“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” Trump tweeted. “It was only done to make me look bad, and perhaps it now doesn’t even work. Should have been built like rest of Wall, 500 plus miles.”
After Trump’s tweet, Kolfage posted one of his own saying the privately funded section of wall had been approved by the president’s administration.
“The private wall that @WeBuildtheWall built and funded is @DHSgov @CBP ENDORSED and APPROVED. Never forget it,” Kolfage said.
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