Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump, was among four suspects arrested Thursday and indicted in connection with an online fundraising campaign that allegedly defrauded donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars, the Justice Department announced.
According to the indictment, Bannon and co-defendant Brian Kolfage told the public that they were a “volunteer organization” and that 100% of the money raised would go toward their stated goal, which was to raise money for the federal government to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Those representations were false,” the indictment said. Prosecutors claim that Kolfage, Bannon, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea took money for themselves as the campaign raised upward of $25 million. The indictment alleges that Bannon received more than $1 million through a nonprofit that he then used for personal expenses and to pay Kolfage.
Prosecutors say Bannon and the others used the nonprofit and a shell company to hide the payments to Kolfage “by using fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements,” as well as other means of keeping the payments quiet. The indictment stated that in order to raise funds, Kolfage and Bannon “repeatedly and falsely” told the public that Kolfage would “not take a penny” in compensation.
According to prosecutors, Kolfage instructed payments to be made out to his spouse, and this was reflected in a 1099 form the non-profit issued, saying the payment was for “media.”
The campaign’s website said that all of the money raised would go to the government for building the wall, and that if they did not meet their fundraising target, they would “refund every single penny,” according to the indictment.
Within a week of Kolfage launching the campaign in December 2018, they raised roughly $17 million, prosecutors said. Due to concerns over where the money was going, the crowdfunding platform told Kolfage to identify a nonprofit that the money would go to or the funds would be returned. At that point, prosecutors said, Bannon and Badolato worked on creating the nonprofit We Build the Wall Inc.
The stated goal was then changed to using the money to privately construct the wall, and past donors had to agree to have their money used for that purpose. They were assured that all of the money would go to wall construction, and not to Kolfage or the organization’s board, the indictment said.
When Kolfage, Bannon, and Badolato learned in the fall of 2019 that the endeavor was under federal investigation, they allegedly “took additional steps to conceal the fraudulent scheme,” the indictment said. This allegedly included using encrypted messaging applications, putting a stop to Kolfage’s salary payments, and removing text from the website saying that Kolfage would not be compensated while adding a notification that he would begin collecting a salary in January 2020.
“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 in a statement. “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.”
Bannon and the other defendants were each charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each count carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
In addition to Kolfage and Bannon, the DOJ identified Badolato and Shea as the other suspects arrested and indicted.
White House spokesperson Alyssa Farah referred questions on the indictments to the DOJ, saying it is “not a White House matter.”
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