Steve Bannon Pleads Not Guilty To Fraud Charges, Freed On $5 Million Bail

Update (1620ET): Bannon pleaded not guilty this afternoon at a brief presentment before U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres in Manhattan, and was freed on $5 million bond which restricts his traveling. Bannon was arrested this morning on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht, and charged with fraud over a $25 million campaign to crowdfund a wall on the US southern border.

Three other executives of the We Build the Wall charity were also charged Thursday with plotting to defraud the donors and launder their money into their own pockets. Bannon; U.S. Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage; venture capitalist Andy Badolato; and Timothy Shea each face conspiracy counts that could carry a maximum 40-year sentence.  

“To induce donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage and Bannon — each of whom, as detailed herein, exerted significant control over We Build the Wall — repeatedly and falsely assured the public that Kolfage 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’ because, as Bannon publicly stated, ‘we’re a volunteer organization,’” according to the indictment filed in the Southern District of New York.

“Those representations were false,” it continues.

According to Courthouse News, acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said the men defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors in this scheme, with the founder treating himself to a boat, Range Rover and a salary on the pretense that every penny the charity raised would be spent on construction.  

“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,” said Strauss, who assumed the position of U.S. attorney earlier this summer after her predecessor Geoffrey Berman’s unexplained and unexpected ouster.  

Officials from the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the politically embattled U.S. Postal Service, reportedly arrested Bannon on a 150-foot yacht off the Eastern coast of Connecticut owned by Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui.

 

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Update (1430ET): Guo Wengui has released a statement on Bannon's arrest. The former top White House advisor was aboard Guo's yacht at the time of the arrest, according to media reports.

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Update (1300ET): The Hartford Courant just reported that Steve Bannon was arrested by - who else? - agents of the Postal Service while aboard a $28 million yacht owned by exiled Chinese businessman Guo Wengui.

Here's more from the Courant's Ed Mahoney:

Stephen K. Bannon, former top advisor to President Donald Trump, was arrested while on a yacht off Westbrook early Thursday, law enforcement sources said.

Bannon was arrested by inspectors from the U.S. Postal Service while cruising Long Island Sound near Westbrook in a $28 million mega yacht called Lady May.

The yacht was seen anchored off West Beach in Westbrook early Thursday, local residents said.

A company that both Guo and Bannon have ties to is reportedly being investigated by the FBI, though the fact that the two business partners were spending time together isn't very scandalous all by itself.

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Update (1150ET): In his first comments on Bannon's arrest, President Trump recalled that he didn't support the "We Build The Wall" project at the time, and added that he thought it looked like "showboating". "This is a job for the government, not private people," he said.

Trump even tweeted his objections in July, as questions about the nonprofit and its work were being raised by watchdog groups and the press.

However, he added that Bannon's arrest "was a very bad thing".

"I didn't like that project, I thought it was being done for showboating regions," Trump said.

When pressed about reporters about the "lawlessness" in Trump's administration (because "it's not just Steve Bannon - it's Michael Flynn, it's Roger Stone...") Trump shot back that there was plenty of "lawlessness" in the Obama Administration.

"They spied on my campaign," he said.

Meanwhile, Scaramucci, who was Bannon's arch-nemesis during Mooch's 11 days in the White House, couldn't help himself.

And neither could Paul Krugman.

We suspect even Jared Kushner, who has no presence on social media and rarely speaks to the press (except recently after the UAE-Israel deal) probably cracked a smile when he heard the news), since the former chief strategist reportedly made several high-profile enemies within Trump's circle during his time in the West Wing.

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Update (1115ET): Beijing is already celebrating Bannon's arrest.

Another detail about Bannon's arrest has slipped out. According to a local TV news station, Bannon was reportedly arrested Thursday while aboard a boat in Westbrook, Conn. The boat is not Bannon's, the law enforcement source told NBC New York. The boat was reportedly 150 feet long, making it a pretty large yacht.

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Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon has been arrested and indicted by the Manhattan US attorney for defrauding people in an online fundraising scheme.

The arrest is tied to the "We Build The Wall" online fundraising scheme which invited Americans to donate to a campaign to build the wall with private funds. Bannon was arrested alongside Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, all four of whom were involved in the online fundraising project (we reported on the fundraiser back in 2018). Prosecutors allege that after promising not to use "one cent" of the money raised in the GoFundMe page and other fundraising venues to pay themselves, the men - particularly Kolfage, the public face of the endeavor - broke this promise. In particular, Kolfage used much of the money to finance a "lavish lifestyle," according to prosecutors (more information can be found in the press release below).

According to the indictment, which was unsealed in Manhattan Federal Court on Thursday, Bannon and the three men willfully conned donors with their promise to build the wall with private money. Per the indictment, Bannon once described WBTW as a "volunteer organization". Eventually "hundreds of thousands of dollars" were siphoned from the campaign, money supplied by donors, including some in the Southern District. Bannon allegedly collected more than $1 million even though little of the wall was ever built.

Feds say Bannon is in federal custody, and Fox News flashed video of the Bannon "perp walk" shortly after news of his arrest hit. According to the AP, a call to the office of Bannon’s lawyer wasn't answered Thursday morning, while a spokeswoman for Bannon didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facing charges of 2 counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering and to commit wire fraud. Both of those charges carry a 20 year sentence.

Notably, this is a separate issue from the FBI investigation into a media venture involving Bannon, an exiled Chinese businessman, and the son of Morgan Stanley's co-founder.

The arrest comes just hours before Joe Biden is set to accept the Democratic nomination. Bannon was indicted by Audrey Strauss, the successor (and former deputy head) to Geoffrey Berman, the US attorney in Manhattan who was messily pushed out by Bill Barr a few weeks ago.

While these charges are the culmination of a separate investigation from the one that was leaked to the WSJ yesterday (and which we mentioned above), it's seems to be part of the same wave of charges and aspersions being cast upon the former White House chief strategist. Aside from the investigation revealed yesterday, there have been multiple leaks about a "previously unpublicized" letter sent by the Senate Intel Committee to the DoJ asking that Bannon be investigated for allegedly lying in his testimony to the Committee. The letter, which was delivered to the DoJ last July when Richard Burr was still committee chairman, was a "bipartisan" effort.

Read the DoJ press release explaining the charges below:

Audrey Strauss, the Acting United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Philip R. Bartlett, Inspector-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service (“USPIS”), announced the unsealing of an indictment charging BRIAN KOLFAGE, STEPHEN BANNON, ANDREW BADOLATO, and TIMOTHY SHEA for their roles in defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign known as “We Build the Wall” that raised more than $25 million.  The defendants were arrested this morning.  KOLFAGE will be presented today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Hope T. Cannon in the Northern District of Florida.  BANNON will be presented today in the Southern District of New York.  BADOLATO will be presented today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Wilson in the Middle District of Florida.  SHEA will be presented today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Kristen L. Mix in the District of Colorado.  The case is assigned to U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres in the Southern District of New York.

Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said:  “As alleged, the defendants defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalizing on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretense that all of that money would be spent on construction.  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.  We thank the USPIS for their partnership in investigating this case, and we remain dedicated to rooting out and prosecuting fraud wherever we find it."

Inspector-in-Charge Philip R. Bartlett said:  “The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds.  As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth.   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."

According to the Indictment[1] unsealed today in Manhattan federal court:

Starting in approximately December 2018, BRIAN KOLFAGE, STEPHEN BANNON, ANDREW BADOLATO, and TIMOTHY SHEA, and others, orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors, including donors in the Southern District of New York, in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign ultimately known as “We Build The Wall” that raised more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States.  In particular, to induce donors to donate to the campaign, 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” because, as BANNON publicly stated, “we’re a volunteer organization."

Those representations were false.  In truth, KOLFAGE, BANNON, BADOLATO, and SHEA received hundreds of thousands of dollars in donor funds from We Build the Wall, which they each used in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations.  In particular, KOLFAGE covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds that donors had given to We Build the Wall, while BANNON, through a non-profit organization under his control (“Non-Profit-1”), received over $1 million from We Build the Wall, at least some of which BANNON used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in BANNON’s personal expenses.  To conceal the payments to KOLFAGE from We Build the Wall, KOLFAGE, BANNON, BADOLATO, and SHEA devised a scheme to route those payments from We Build the Wall to KOLFAGE indirectly through Non-Profit-1 and a shell company under SHEA’s control, among other avenues.  They did so by using fake invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to ensure, as KOLFAGE noted in a text message to BADOLATO, that his pay arrangement remained “confidential” and kept on a “need to know” basis. 

Read the indictment below:

u.s. v. Brian Kolfage Stephen Bannon Et Al. Indictment 20-Cr-412 0 by Zerohedge on Scribd

As TV commentators chew over what this means for the election, and whether the removal of Berman had anything to do with the Bannon case (even though Berman was handling a case involving Trump's finances that hit much closer to home for Trump). Though Trump fired Bannon six months into his administration, speculation about whether Trump might step in to help his old friend will likely intensify, even though the case likely won't have run its course before the start of the next presidential term. What's more, as Jonathan Turley notes, Bannon is just the latest Trump world figure to be prosecuted under Bill Barr.

Clearly the charges against Bannon suggest that the investigations have continyed in an independent fashion, despite all the warnings from Trump and Barr's critics. Just like how Trump's SCOTUS picks were supposed to destroy abortion rights.

And if Bannon is being prosecuted for allegedly helping others exploit GoFundMe donations, will we see similar prosecutions of figures on the political left?

Of course, the notion that Kolfage (the real target of the probe, though Bannon's name is atop the marquee) & company defrauded unsuspecting rubes is undercut slightly by the fact that the GoFundMe page and "We Build The Wall" were almost immediately attacked by nonprofits like Charity Watch, and conservative media outlets like the Daily Caller, as having little to no accountability, just like plenty of other charities that legally operate in the US.