Former White House adviser Steve Bannon was arrested Thursday on charges that he and three others illicitly took money from donors in an online fundraising scheme “We Build The Wall”.
The charges were contained in an indictment (PDF) unsealed in Manhattan federal court.
Federal prosecutors alleged that 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.
As a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign who later served as White House chief strategist, Bannon helped articulate the right-wing populism and fierce opposition to immigration that have helped define Trump’s 3-1/2 years in office. Bannon left the White House in August 2017.
Bannon was arrested Thursday morning along with Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, according to a statement from the US Attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York.
Bannon had publicly called the ‘We Build The Wall’ campaign a “volunteer organization”.
Kolfage “repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would “not take a penny in salary or compensation” and that “100% of the funds raised . . . will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose””, according to the indictment.
The four men allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars “which they each used in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations,” the indictment alleges.
Bannon received over $1m from the scheme through a non-profit organization he controls, and used it “to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars” in personal expenses, the indictment alleges. Kolfage “covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds”.
The four accused are each charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
The indictment alleges that the men routed donor funds through a non-profit organization and a shell company “among other avenues” to shield the payment from the We Build the Wall
The three are innocent until proven guilty, the US Attorney’s Office statement said, reiterating a founding principle of the US criminal justice system.
The We Build The Wall website claims 500,000 people have donated, and $25m has been raised.
Donald Trump Jr called the organization “private enterprise at its finest”, “faster, better, cheaper” and saying “what you guys are doing is pretty amazing,” in a testimonial on the group’s website.
Trump’s signature effort to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border – a key 2016 campaign promise – has struggled amid court challenges, logistical hurdles and opposition from Democrats in Congress.
The charges are being handled by the same federal office that prosecuted Trump’s former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, and is investigating his current lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. The office’s top prosecutor, Geoffrey Berman, was abruptly ousted by Attorney General William Barr earlier this year.
The charges were announced on the same day that Trump faced another legal setback, with a judge dismissing his lawsuit trying to shield his personal and corporate tax records from release.
Al Jazeera and news agencies