Steve Bannon charged with defrauding 'Build the Wall' donors

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon was arrested for defrauding donors in an online fundraising scheme. 100% of donations were promised to go toward the "We Build the Wall" project, but Mr. Bannon allegedly used large sums for personal expenses.

Al Drago/AP
Former White House advisor Steve Bannon arrives at federal court in Washington to testify at the trial of Roger Stone, Nov. 8, 2019. A federal indictment alleges that Mr. Bannon and three others faked invoices and sham "vendor" agreements to defraud thousands of people.

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon was arrested Thursday on charges that he and three others ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme "We Build the Wall."

The charges were contained in an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court that alleged Mr. Bannon received over $1 million himself, using some to secretly pay a co-defendant, Brian Kolfage, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars of Mr. Bannon's personal expenses.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Mr. Bannon and three others "orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors" in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States.

According to the indictment, Mr. Bannon promised that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project, but the defendants collectively used hundreds of thousands of dollars in a manner inconsistent with the organization's public representations.

The indictment said they faked invoices and sham "vendor" arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening.

The defendants learned last October from a financial institution that the "We Build the Wall" campaign might be under federal criminal investigation and took additional steps to conceal the fraud, according to the indictment.

Charges included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

A phone at the office of Mr. Bannon's lawyer went unanswered Thursday morning. A spokeswoman for Mr. Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was not immediately clear who would represent Mr. Kolfage at an initial court appearance.

"It's not possible to steal the money," Mr. Kolfage once said publicly, according to the indictment. "I can't touch that money. It's not for me."

"We Build the Wall" originally promoted a project for 3 miles of fence posts in South Texas that was ultimately built and largely funded by Fisher Industries, which has received about $2 billion in funding for wall contracts. Tommy Fisher, CEO, didn't respond to calls for comment.

Mr. Trump recently criticized that section of wall after it showed signs of erosion, saying it was "only done to make me look bad," even though it was built by his supporters.

Mr. Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Mr. Trump's campaign in its critical final months, when he pushed a scorched earth strategy that included highlighting the stories of former President Bill Clinton's accusers. After the election, he served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Mr. Trump's administration.

The blunt, combative Mr. Bannon was the voice of a nationalistic, outsider conservatism, and he pushed Mr. Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including his travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. But Mr. Bannon also clashed with other top advisers, and his high profile sometimes irked Mr. Trump. He was pushed out in August 2017.

Mr. Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before becoming a Hollywood producer, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called "War Room" that began during the president's impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP writer Jennifer Peltz contributed to this report.

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