Steve Bannon, the hard-right political activist who guided Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign, was arrested and charged with allegedly defrauding a charity of $1 million raised through a crowd-funded “Build the Wall” campaign.
Acting US Attorney Audrey Strauss of the Southern District of New York (SDNY), announced that Bannon and three other defendants, Brian Kolfage, 38, an Air Force veteran from Florida, Andrew Badolato, 56, a financier from Florida and Timothy Shea, 49, from Colorado, were in on the scheme.
Bannon and the others allegedly ““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,” the U.S. Attorney charged.
Bannon’s ties to Trump are significant and long-standing.
He was chief executive of Trump’s 2016 presidential bid and went on to serve as chief White House strategist in the Trump administration. He was summarily booted out of the job a year later after clashing with Trump and family members.
He rose to prominence as co-founder of far-right website Breitbart News in 2007. During his tenure, the site was a source of conspiracy theories and false claims with an underlying slant of neo-Nazi and white supremacist tropes.
The “We Build the Wall” fundraising effort, set up by Kolfage, was supposed to use all proceeds toward construction of Trump’s southern wall on the Mexican border. In all, it raised an estimated $25 million.
It’s motto is “Your donations have a direct impact!”
The campaign was an immediate success, according to the indictment. In the first week, gullible Trump supporters poured $17 million into the fund.
The effort ran into problems with the crowd-funding website hosting the campaign because the funds weren’t designated for a non-profit organization. Instead Kolfage had promised to turn the money over to the federal government.
Immediately after the warning, Bannon and Badolato concocted a non-profit, We Build the Wall, Inc.” to accept the donations.
The site promised that none of the men would “take a penny in salary or compensation.”
But they started lining their pockets almost immediately and concocted a scheme to hide the diversion.
Kolfage secretly took more than $350,000 in donations for his own personal use. Bannon funneled more than $1 million from “We Build the Wall,” to another unnamed nonprofit organization under his control.
To conceal the illicit flow of money, prosecutors said, the four men also routed payments through a shell company that Mr. Shea controlled, according to The New York Times.
The money they skimmed was allegedly used “for a variety of personal uses including, among other things, expenses travel, hotel, consumer goods and personal credit card debts.”
Kolfage, for example, allegedly used proceeds for “home renovations, payments towards a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.”
Kris Kobach, the former Kansas secretary of state for adopting strict voter ID laws that critics said was an effort to disenfranchise minority voters, served as general counsel for the organization. But he has not been charted.
Kobach became the point man on Trump’s Commission on Election Integrity, which was formed to investigate Trump’s oft-repeated claims of election fraud.
It disbanded in January 2018 without ever publishing a report or unearthing any evidence.
Trump reportedly gave his blessing to the fundraising effort last year, but was not personally involved, Kobach told The Times last year.
Don Trump Jr, called the effort “private enterprise at its finest.” But he also appears to have had no direct involvement.
In characteristic fashion, Trump is now walking back his support for the effort.
“I disagreed with doing this tiny section of wall in a tricky area by a private group which raised money by ads,” he said following the announcement of the arrests.
Bannon was arrested early Thursday (Aug. 20) in Connecticut by U.S. postal inspectors. He was transferred to Manhattan and is expected to appear before a U.S. magistrate later today.
He faces charges in a two-count indictment unsealed in federal district court.
“Sadly, reading these stories doesn’t have much of a shock factor since there has been so much grifting amongst those associated with Trump. A pardon is likely the outcome with further disregard for consequences for breaking the law,” wrote on Times commenter.