Steve Bannon pleads not guilty in ‘We Build the Wall’ scheme

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon addresses a crowd, gesturing with his right index finger as he arrives at the Manhattan District Attorney's office to surrender to authorities in New York, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in New York.

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon arrives at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office to surrender to New York authorities, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in New York City.

EDUARDO MUNOZ / AP

Former President Donald Trump’s longtime ally Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday to duping donors who donated money to build a wall on the US southern border – a reboot at the state level of a federal case that ended in a presidential pardon last year.

Bannon, 68, was freed without bond after being charged with money laundering, conspiracy and fraud related to the “We Build the Wall” campaign. He is the second person pardoned by Trump and later charged by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for the same alleged conduct.

“All this makes no sense. They will never shut me up,” Bannon said as he left the court.

Manhattan prosecutors said that although Bannon promised that all donations would go towards building the wall, he was involved in transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars to third-party entities and used them to funnel payments to two other people involved in the scheme.

The indictment did not identify those individuals by name, but the details match those of Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in April.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said after Bannon was pardoned, Manhattan prosecutors decided they had to hold him accountable because the alleged scheme defrauded hundreds of Manhattan residents.

“The simple truth is this: it is a crime to take advantage of donors’ backs by pretending,” Bragg told a news conference.

Bannon’s charges in New York stem from the same alleged conduct as an attempted federal prosecution that ended abruptly, pretrial, when Trump pardoned Bannon on his last day in office. Manhattan prosecutors also charged WeBuildTheWall, Inc., the nonprofit entity that Bannon and his former co-defendants used to solicit donations. The company pleaded not guilty on Thursday.

Presidential pardons only apply to federal crimes, not state misdemeanors. Last year, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office charged Ken Kurson, a friend of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, with cyberstalking months after Trump pardoned him in a similar federal case.

Like Bannon, Kurson was pardoned early in his federal case, before acquittal or conviction, denying any double jeopardy arguments.

Arriving at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office shortly after 9 a.m. Thursday, Bannon said it was “an irony” that the mayor of New York is objecting to buses full of migrants sent into the city from Texas while that prosecutors “persecute people here, who try to arrest them at the border.

Earlier, Bannon had accused Bragg of pursuing “false charges” against him, saying the Democratic prosecutor had targeted him ahead of November’s midterm elections because he and his radio show were popular among Republican supporters of Trump.

Bannon, in a statement Tuesday, said federal prosecutors “did the exact same thing in August 2020 to try to remove me from the election,” referring to his arrest months before Trump’s re-election loss. “This is nothing more than partisan political militarization of the criminal justice system.”

But New York Attorney General Letitia James, whose office worked with Manhattan prosecutors on the case, said it was about holding “powerful political interests” accountable.

“They think they are above the law. And the most egregious of them are taking advantage of hardworking Americans in the process. Steve Bannon stands out as a perfect example of this glaring inequality,” said James, a Democrat.

In 2020, federal agents removed Bannon from a luxury yacht off the Connecticut coast and arrested him for pocketing more than $1 million in donations to the wall-building effort. In total, more than $25 million was raised, prosecutors said.

In that case, federal prosecutors alleged that Bannon and his co-defendants capitalized on public fervor for border security — a mainstay of Trump’s presidential campaign — and tricked thousands into believing that 100% of their donations would go toward building a wall along the 1,933-mile (3,110 kilometer) United States-Mexico line.

Instead, according to federal prosecutors, Bannon used some of the money to pay for personal expenses and a secret salary to Kolfage, co-founder of “We Build the Wall.”

“All the money you donate goes to building the wall,” Bannon told donors at a fundraising event in June 2019, according to the New York indictment unsealed Thursday. Kolfage, who is not charged in the state’s case, has repeatedly promised, “I will not take a penny of these donations, not a penny,” the indictment states.

Bannon, who had pleaded not guilty to the federal charges, was removed from the federal case when Trump pardoned him.

Kolfage, a US Air Force veteran who lost both his legs in a mortar attack in Iraq, and Badolato, a Florida financier, were due to be sentenced this week, but it was recently postponed until December. The trial of a third defendant ended in a mistrial in June after jurors said they could not reach a unanimous verdict.

In another case not covered by Trump’s pardon, Bannon was found in July in contempt for defying a congressional subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 uprising on the U.S. Capitol. He is due in October and faces up to two years in federal prison.

A voice of nationalist and outsider conservatism, Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before becoming chief executive of Trump’s 2016 campaign during his critical final months. As the president’s chief strategist, he was at the forefront of many of the administration’s most controversial policies, including its travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, but was expelled after less than ‘a year.

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