Steve Bannon: Former Trump aide attributes fraud charges to people trying to stop border wall as he leaves court

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Steve Bannon has claimed that the federal charges against him and three other men in an allegedly fraudulent crowdfunding campaign are an attempt to “stop the people who want to build” a US-Mexico border wall backed by Donald Trump.

“This whole fiasco is to stop the people who want to build the wall,” the former adviser to the president said as he left the US District Court in New York, where he pleaded not guilty to wire transfer fraud and money laundering money Thursday. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted.

He made the brief statement as he exited Manhattan federal court and entered a black Cadillac Escalade.

Artist’s sketch of former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon listening to Judge Stewart Aaron as he appears on video during his conspiracy arraignment hearing to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering inside Manhattan Federal Court in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York on August 20, 2020 (REUTERS)

His bond was set at $ 5 million, with $ 1.75 million in cash and real estate assets. He must surrender his passport and is only allowed to travel to certain parts of New York, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut for business reasons. He is also prohibited from boarding private jets and yachts without court permission.

He was arrested Thursday morning at 7.15 a.m. by officers from the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service while on board a Chinese billionaire’s yacht off the coast of Connecticut.

Mr Bannon and three other men involved in a “We Build the Wall” charity – Brian Kolfage, Andy Badolato and Timothy Shea – were indicted on Thursday in one of the most politically engaged cases related to the president’s campaign between the hands of the interim US attorney. Audrey Strauss, who stepped into the role after her predecessor Geoffrey Berman was abruptly fired by Mr. Trump in June.

The four men were arrested Thursday and each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

“To encourage donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage and Bannon – each of whom, as detailed here, have exercised significant control over We Build the Wall – have repeatedly and falsely assured the public that Kolfage` will not take not a dime in salary or compensation ”and that“ 100% of funds raised ”“ would be used for the stated purpose of the crowdfunding campaign, according to a 24-page indictment filed in US District Court in New York and unsealed Thursday.

“As Bannon has stated publicly, ‘we are a voluntary organization’, ‘according to the indictment. “These representations were false. ”

The men “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 that money would be spent on construction” along the US-Mexico border , said U.S. Attorney Strauss. said in a statement.

Instead, the campaign, which raised more than $ 25 million, was used to fund their own lavish lifestyles through “bogus bills and money laundering accounts” to cover up their crimes, according to Chief Inspector Philip R. Bartlett.

Mr Bannon is said to have taken $ 1 million from that campaign, funneled through a nonprofit under his control. He reportedly used “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to cover his personal expenses.

Prosecutors alleged that Mr. Kolfage, a veteran of the US Air Force, “secretly took for his personal use more than $ 350,000 in funds” raised by We Build the Wall.

The system relied on channeling payments from the crowdfunding campaign to a nonprofit and shell company under Mr. Shea’s control, using fraudulent invoices and “fake supplier agreements” to hide their fraud, prosecutors said.

The president immediately sought to distance himself from the indictments.

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisted that “President Trump is not involved in this project and felt it was only done to showcase and possibly raise funds “.

“I feel very bad,” the president said on Thursday following reports that his former assistant had been arrested. “I haven’t dealt with him for a long time, as most people in this room know. He was involved in our campaign… and for a small part of the administration, very early on. dealt with him. ”

Mr Bannon, former executive chairman of Breitbart, served as the president’s chief strategist in the White House, but left the administration within the president’s first eight months. He was previously the general manager of the campaign.

We Build the Wall began as a massive campaign by GoFundMe, bypassing the President’s campaign promise and legal and congressional hurdles for a massive border wall project with a privately funded effort.

The campaign had the backing of homeland security and border patrol officials, as well as the son of President Donald Trump Jr., who called it “a private enterprise at its best” in 2018.

“Brian thank you very much for all your sacrifices, for doing this and really showing what capitalism is,” he said at a We Build the Wall event that year. “This is a private business at its best. Do better, faster, cheaper than anything else. ”

About a month after the president criticized the effort, the president told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he knew “nothing about the project other than that I didn’t like when I read about it. topic, I did not like. ”

“I said, ‘This is for the government. It is not for individuals. “And it sounded like showboating to me,” he says. “And I think I let my opinion be very strongly expressed at the time. “

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