Steve Bannon, a former top strategist for President Trump, was arrested and charged by federal prosecutors with fraud for his role in the “We Build the Wall” crowdfunding scheme.
According to federal prosecutors, Bannon and three other men involved in the fundraising project — which claimed to be collecting money to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border — defrauded “hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign known as ‘We Build the Wall’ that raised more than $25 million.”
Bannon, 66, was charged by prosecutors in the U.S. Southern District of New York with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Bannon and the three other defendants were arrested Thursday morning, prosecutors said. The investigation into the alleged fraud perpetrated by the “We Build the Wall” foursome was assisted by the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
Bannon specifically received over $1 million from We Build the Wall, at least some of which he used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses, according to the 24-page indictment against him and the other defendants, which was unsealed Thursday.
Bannon was fired from his role as chief strategist at the White House in August 2017, part of a housecleaning under then chief of staff John Kelly. Bannon, a former producer and documentary filmmaker, was executive chairman at Breitbart News Network before Trump hired him as campaign CEO in August 2016.
The others indicted on wired fraud and money laundering charges are: We Build the Wall founder Brian Kolfage, 38, of Miramar Beach, Fla.; Andrew Badolato, 56, of Sarasota, Fla.; Timothy Shea, 49, of Castle Rock, Colo. Like Bannon, each faces up to 20 years in prison on each count.
“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 for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss said in announcing the charges.
In October 2019, prosecutors alleged, after Bannon, Kolfage and Badolato learned from a bank that We Build the Wall might be the target of a federal criminal investigation, they “took additional steps” to conceal fraudulent payments, including changing the organization’s website “to remove any mention of the promise that Kolfage was not being compensated.”
The organizers of “We Build the Wall” initially launched their fundraising campaign in December 2018 on GoFundMe — aiming to raise $1 billion to donate to the federal government for the construction of a wall at the southern U.S. border, something that had been a signature campaign promise of Donald Trump. After the campaign failed to hit that funding target, garnering only about $20 million from 337,518 donors, GoFundMe shut it down and issued refunds.
Kolfage, in collaboration with Bannon and Badolato, then formed a Florida-based not-for-profit corporation called “We Build the Wall Inc.” to solicit donations directly from supporters and promised funds would be used for the private construction of a border wall. The entity ultimately collected more than $25 million, according to U.S. prosecutors.
“While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” Strauss said in her statement.
Kolfage “covertly took more than $350,000 in funds that had been donated to We Build the Wall for his personal use,” according to the indictment. Kolfage, Bannon and the other two defendants used “fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements, among other ways,” to conceal the payments to Kolfage, prosecutors alleged.
According to the indictment, 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,’ because Kolfage was taking ‘no compensation’ from We Build the Wall.”
Bannon, Badolato and Shea each received hundreds thousands of dollars from We Build the Wall donations for personal expenses including “travel, hotels, consumer goods and personal credit card debts,” per the indictment.