How Steve Bannon allegedly duped Trump’s supporters into funding ‘lavish lifestyle’ with a ‘fraudulent’ border wall campaign

Former White House chief strategist took in nearly $1m from fundraising campaign, federal prosecutors say

Chris Riotta
New York
Thursday 20 August 2020 15:01
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Fox News dramatically introduces Steve Bannon as 'one of the most brilliant minds in modern politics'

Thousands of Donald Trump’s supporters were duped by his former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and others into supporting an online crowdfunding effort to build the president’s long-promised border wall, federal prosecutors have alleged.

The indictment of Mr Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea was the result of what prosecutors described as an illegal scheme which “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalising on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretence that all of that money would be spent on construction” along the US-Mexico border.

Instead, the four men were accused of setting up the “We Build the Wall” crowdfunding campaign, which raised over $25m, to fund their own lavish lifestyles – funnelling that money through sham nonprofits created with the sole purpose of concealing payments the men were making to themselves.

“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,” acting US attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement on Thursday. “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.”

Despite the group of men assuring donors that Mr Kolfage would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” from the campaign, the indictment went on to allege that the US air force veteran “covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds that donors had given to We Build the Wall”.

Mr Bannon was alleged to have received over $1m, some of which the indictment said he used to cover personal expenses.

All four of the men were charged with taking part in the creation of shell companies and fake invoices, with the indictment citing text messages between Mr Kolfage and Mr Badolato discussing the “confidential” payments.

Mr Bannon and the other men involved in the alleged scheme described themselves as a “volunteer organisation” dedicated to advancing the president’s agenda, and one of his most fundamental campaign promises during the 2016 election.

But the money donors raised went to things that had nothing to do with a border wall, the indictment alleged, including more than $350,000 of which was used to make “payments toward a boat”.

Mr Kolfage has posted several photos of a boat he named The Warfighter, which made an appearance at a Fourth of July boat parade in support of the president in Destin, Florida.

The indictments were unsealed on Thursday in a Manhattan federal court.

It all began in December 2018 when thousands of donors began taking part in a viral online campaign, prosecutors alleged, with the apparent goal of raising enough money to begin independently building a border wall in the US. The campaign was born at a moment when Mr Trump’s efforts to build the border wall were met with deadlock in Congress, as the Democrat-led House of Representatives refused to provide funding his administration requested for new border wall construction.

All four men were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, as well as one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.

The White House released a statement on Thursday putting distance between the president and the independent fundraising effort.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said: “As everyone knows, President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds.”

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