Steve Bannon, the right-wing firebrand who masterminded Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory, has been charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of people through a “We Build The Wall” crowdfunder.
Bannon, along with three others – Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea – were arrested on Thursday and indicted by federal prosecutors in Manhattan, New York.
All three face up to 40 years in prison if convicted. Bannon has pleaded not guilty.
The indictment alleges all three siphoned off large sums from the $25m (£19m) raised by the campaign and used it to fund “lavish lifestyles” and cover personal expenses.
Despite promising that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project, the defendants collectively used hundreds of thousands of dollars in a manner inconsistent with the organisation’s public representations, it is alleged.
The indictment said they faked invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening.
Bannon wore a protective white mask amid the coronavirus pandemic and two open-collared shirts at a federal court in Manhattan, where his lawyer entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf. He was freed on $5 million bond and was barred by a federal magistrate judge from traveling internationally.
Inspector-in-Charge Philip Bartlett said: “The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds.
“As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth.
“This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist.”
Bannon was chief executive of the alt-right Breitbart News before stepping down to serve as CEO of Trump election campaign in 2016 and moved on to a top White House strategy post after the victory.
The blunt-spoken, combative Bannon was the voice of a nationalistic, outsider conservatism, and he pushed Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including his travel ban for some foreigners and his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change agreement.
But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers, and his high profile sometimes irked Trump and he was pushed out in August 2017.
Trump told reporters at the White House that he feels “very badly” about the charges but sought to distance himself from Bannon and the alleged scheme.
“I do think it’s a sad event,” Trump said. “I haven’t dealt with him at all now for years, literally years.”
Trump said he knew little about the project. But one of those involved, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, said in 2019 that Trump had offered his support, according to the New York Times.