Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon arrived in court in New York on Thursday to face fresh charges related to a charity that was supposed to use private funds to build the U.S.-Mexico border wall.
Bannon, 68, was indicted on charges including money laundering, scheming to defraud and conspiracy, according to a court filing unsealed Thursday morning.
The six-count indictment also names the group WeBuildTheWall.Inc, which it says worked with Bannon on the scheme in 2019. Bannon was chair of the “advisory board” for the group, which prosecutors say duped thousands of donors by maintaining that all the money raised would go to building a wall along the southern border and not to the people running the effort.
The group’s president, Brian Kolfage, who is left unnamed in the indictment, pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the scheme, the filing alleges. Some of the money was routed to him by Bannon, who had money from the campaign transferred to a nonprofit group under Bannon’s control and then used that cash to pay Kolfage $140,000, the indictment alleges.
Prosecutors allege that Bannon was well aware the group was publicizing that Kolfage was telling donors “I’m taking zero dollars of a salary, no compensation,” and that Bannon had echoed those claims himself.
In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said Bannon “acted as the architect of a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud thousands of donors across the country — including hundreds of Manhattan residents.”
“It is a crime to turn a profit by lying to donors, and in New York, you will be held accountable,” Bragg said.
New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office teamed up with the district attorney in the probe, said Bannon “took advantage of his donors’ political views to secure millions of dollars which he then misappropriated” and “lied to his donors to enrich himself and his friends.”
Bannon was scheduled to be arraigned on the charges Thursday afternoon.
In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, Bannon said, “This is nothing more than a partisan political weaponization of the criminal justice system.”
NBC News reported in February 2021 that the district attorney’s office had opened an investigation into Bannon’s involvement in the alleged scam a month after Trump pardoned him. Presidential pardons only apply to federal cases, meaning New York is not prohibited from pursuing similar charges.
The federal case alleged that Bannon was one of four people who “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors” out of some of the more than $25 million raised through an online crowdfunding campaign to help fulfill Trump’s pledge to build a border wall. Federal authorities said Bannon used his nonprofit organization to receive more than $1 million of wall-building funds.
Two of Bannon’s co-defendants in the federal case, Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, pleaded guilty in April and are scheduled to be sentenced in December. A trial for the third co-defendant, Timothy Shea, ended in a mistrial in June, when the jury deadlocked and couldn’t reach a verdict. Shea is scheduled to be retried in October.
Bannon is also awaiting sentencing after being convicted of misdemeanor contempt of Congress charges for snubbing subpoenas from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. He faces up to a year in jail and $100,000 in fines.
Bannon’s case is not the first brought by the New York district attorney’s office involving the former president’s allies.
Last June, the office charged the Trump Organization and its then-chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, with tax fraud and other charges in what they described as a sweeping, 15-year scheme to compensate top executives “off the books” and help them avoid paying taxes.
Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty in the case last month, is expected to testify against the company when the case goes to trial in October.
The company pleaded not guilty and Trump has not been charged in the case. He has, however, insisted that the investigation is part of a political “witch hunt” against him and has accused Bragg, who is Black, of being a “racist” for pursuing the case.
The case was initially brought by Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance.
Vance also brought a criminal case in 2019 against Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort for allegedly falsifying business records to obtain millions of dollars in residential mortgage loans. The case was later dismissed on double jeopardy grounds as he had already been tried and convicted for related crimes uncovered by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Manafort’s case likely won’t help Bannon. The state passed a law in late 2019 that allows its prosecutors to pursue investigations into any recipient of a presidential pardon who served in a president’s administration, worked directly or indirectly to advance a presidential campaign or transition, or worked at a nonprofit or business controlled by a president, and whose alleged criminal activity took place in New York.