by Larry Neumeister, Colleen Long, and Jill Colvin
NEW YORK, New York (AP) — President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon was arrested Thursday on charges that he and three others “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of dollars” from donors to an online fundraising effort to build a southern border wall, making him the latest in a long list of Trump associates to be indicted or charged.
The “We Build The Wall” fundraiser was headed by men who pushed their close ties to President Trump and raised more than $25 million. They touted their effort to help the president realize his vision of a physical border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, especially after Trump’s effort to redirect millions in government funds, was held up through lawsuits by open-border activists.
But according to the criminal charges unsealed Thursday, little of the wall was actually constructed. Instead, the money lined the pockets of some of those involved. Bannon, who served in Trump’s 2016 campaign and the White House, allegedly received over $1 million himself, using some to secretly pay co-defendant Brian Kolfage, the founder of the project, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars of Bannon’s personal expenses, prosecutors say.
According to the indictment (embedded in full below), the District Attorney’s office say Bannon promised that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project, but the defendants collectively used it in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations.
Prosecutors allege the group faked invoices and created sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening. “All money donated to the ‘We Build the Wall’ campaign goes directly to wall!!! Not anyone’s pocket,” the indictment quotes Kolfage as saying on social media.
Bannon is among numerous former Trump associates who have found themselves under indictment or in jail, including his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
An immigration plan unveiled by Trump last year included a proposal to allow public donations to pay for his long-promised southern border wall. At that point, the GoFundMe campaign launched by war veteran Brian Kolfage had raised more than $20 million for wall construction.
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. 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,” he said.
Trump on Thursday told reporters that he knew nothing about the project and never believed in a privately financed barrier.
“I thought that was a project being done for showboating reasons,” he said.
White House spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany said Trump “has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project.”
The defendants learned last October from a financial institution that the wall-building campaign might be under federal criminal investigation and took additional steps to conceal the fraud, according to the indictment.
Charges included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Kolfage did not return a call seeking comment, but according to the indictment, he once said: “It’s not possible to steal the money. I can’t touch that money. It’s not for me.”
A phone at the office of Bannon’s lawyer went unanswered Thursday morning. Bannon and his spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was not immediately clear who would represent Kolfage at an initial court appearance, and his phone was unanswered.
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 that the coffee company was the only way he ‘keeps his family fed and a roof over their head.’”
Some donors wrote directly to Kolfage saying they did not have a lot of money and were skeptical of online fundraising campaigns, the indictment said. It added that Kolfage would reassure the donors that nobody was being compensated.
In fact, the indictment said, an arrangement had been made among Bannon and his co-defendants to allegedly pay Kolfage $100,000 up front and an additional $20,000 monthly.
Prosecutors say 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.
We Build the Wall, launched on Dec. 17, 2018, 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. We Build The Wall used early construction to raise more cash and more private land donations in along border states.
Construction faced resistance by local authorities in New Mexico and Texas and 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 then left the project to work on the upcoming presidential election, said it seemed clear that federal prosecutors were “attacking political infrastructure that supports President Trump right before the election.”
He could not comment on the specific charges yet. He was not charged in the case.
Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign in its critical final months, when he pushed a scorched-earth strategy that included highlighting the stories of former President Bill Clinton’s accusers. After the election, he served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Trump’s administration.
The blunt-spoken, combative Bannon was the voice of a nationalist, outsider conservatism, and he pushed Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including his travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers, and his high profile sometimes irked Trump. He was pushed out in August 2017.
Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before becoming a Hollywood producer, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room” that began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.
Kris Kobach, a conservative firebrand and the former Kansas secretary of state, was general counsel for the group that ran the wall fundraising effort. Kobach, who lost a race for Senate in Kansas earlier this month, is known nationally for advocating restrictive immigration policies.
A day before the indictment was unsealed, Kolfage was interviewed by Bannon on Bannon’s “War Room” podcast. He discussed a dispute with the fundraising platform and encouraged future donors to go straight to their website.
Bannon asked him whether he thought the wall could get built to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise.
“I think we stand in a pretty good spot, as long as he gets elected,” Kolfage said.
Read the indictment:
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Larry Neumeister, Colleen Long, and Jill Colvin are reporters at The Associated Press. Long and Colvin reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York, Nomaan Merchant in Northbrook, Illinois, and Cedar Attanasio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contributed to this report. Christina Botteri contributed to this article.
About the Headline Photo: In this Nov. 8, 2019 file photo, former White House strategist Steve Bannon arrives to testify at the trial of Roger Stone, at federal court in Washington. 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/Al Drago, File)