Daily US Times: The former chief strategist of President Trump Steve Bannon has been charged and with fraud over a fundraising campaign to build a wall on the US-Mexico border.
The US Department of Justice (DoJ) said Mr Bannon and three others defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with the “We Build the Wall” campaign, which raised $25m (£19m).
The DoJ said, Mr Bannon, a former top political advisor for Donald Trump, received more than $1m, at least some of which he used to cover personal expenses.
He is due to appear in court later in the day.
The “We build the wall” campaign pledged to use donations to build segments of the border barrier in the Mexico borders – whose construction was a key Donald Trump promise during the 2016 election – on private land.
But the Acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), Audrey Strauss, said Mr Bannon, Andrew Badolato, Brian Kolfage and Timothy Shea had “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”.
According to the DoJ statement, Mr Bannon had received more than $1m through a non-profit organisation he controlled, at least some of which he used to cover “hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses”.
The statement said Mr Kolfage – founder of “We Build the Wall” – covertly took $350,000 for his personal use, the statement said.
Ms Strauss said: “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.”
The four created “sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth”, SDNY Inspector-in-Charge Philip R Bartlett said.
He said: “This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist.”
In December 2018, Mr Bannon and the three others launched the scheme and the DoJ said during the campaign Mr Kolfage said that all of the money donated would go towards construction while Mr Bannon publicly said, “We’re a volunteer organisation”.
All four defendants are charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering and one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The 66-year-old Mr Bannon will appear in court in the SDNY. Mr Badolato and Mr Kolfage will appear in separate courts in Florida and Mr Shea will appear in Colorado.
The line between swindling and legitimate online political fundraising is sometimes a fine one. Federal prosecutors are now alleging that Steve Bannon crossed it.
Mr Bannon was one of those fringe figures who rode Trump’s improbable rise to the presidency to national prominence. However, his time in actual power at the White House was short-lived.
President Trump reportedly resented news reports painting Steve Bannon as the “brains” behind the president – a perception boosted by Mr Bannon’s willingness to talk with the press.
Since then he mostly has been confined to advocating for the president from the sidelines – and participating in sometimes questionable side projects like this wall foundation.
That this indictment comes out of the Southern District of New York. This federal prosecutorial office has handled other high-profile cases involving Trump associates and it’s latest step will stir greater interest in the indictment.
Who is Steve Bannon?
The former investment banker was the driving force behind Breitbart News, the right-wing news website, before serving in the Trump White House as chief strategist. His influence was discernible in key decisions such as the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in 2017.
He left the post of White House chief strategist in August 2017 and returned to Breitbart, but was again forced to step down after criticising Mr Trump’s decisions, prompting the US President to say “Steve Bannon has nothing to do with me or my presidency. When he was fired, he not only lost his job, he lost his mind”.
Mr Bannon has since expressed support for the idea of a right-wing supergroup of populist parties in Europe and his presence at events has become controversial, with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon pulling out of an event co-hosted by the BBC at which he appeared, New Yorker magazine dropping him from a festival, and a further appearance at Oxford University Union that attracted protests.
Last year he told that the “turmoil” from Brexit was “only just beginning” and argued that the border wall between Mexico and the US would help black and Hispanic communities.
What is happening with the border wall?
The wall with Mexico is perhaps President Trump’s most memorable signature promise during his 2016 election campaign.
Mr Trump said he would build it, and Mexico would pay for it.
Before Mr Trump took office, there were 654 miles (just over 1,000km) of barrier along the southern border of the country. He promised to build a wall along the border’s entire 2,000-mile length. He said later that it would only cover half of that – with nature, such as rivers and mountains, helping to take care of the rest.
The money has come from previous funding approved by the US Congress, as well as extra cash the president has been able to access since he declared a state of emergency in February 2019 amid a spike in the number of migrants entering the US.
President Trump has gained access to defence funds, but is still short of the original estimate of up to $12bn which, in turn, is far shorter than much higher estimates that include construction consultants and others.