Steve Bannon, former campaign manager and special adviser to President Donald Trump was arrested Thursday — along with three others — after a federal grand jury handed over an indictment on charges of fraud and money laundering related to the construction of a private border wall south of Mission.
The indictment, which was unsealed Thursday morning, claims that Bannon, 66, and others conspired to defraud donors through an online crowdfunding campaign intended to raise money for the construction of a border wall along the nation’s southwest border.
The federal government alleges that Bannon conspired with Brian Kolfage, 38, an Air Force veteran who founded the nonprofit fundraising organization known as We Build the Wall, as well as two other men — Andrew Badolato, 56, of Sarasota, Florida, and Timothy Shea, 49, of Castle Rock, Colorado — to funnel money from private donors to the $25 million wall-building campaign for their own personal gain.
“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,” acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.
Federal prosecutors allege the four men conspired to skim money from the fundraising effort, falsely asserting that Kolfage, as head of WBTW, would “not take a penny in salary or compensation,” and that all funds raised would go toward wall building efforts.
Instead, prosecutors say Bannon and Kolfage quickly orchestrated a scheme whereby they laundered through shell companies, nonprofits and bank accounts operated by Bannon, Shea, Badolato and at least two unnamed co-conspirators.
“(W)ithin days of launching We Build the Wall, KOLFAGE, working primarily with BANNON and BADOLATO, reached a secret agreement whereby KOLFAGE would be covertly paid ‘$100k upfront [and] then 20 [per] month,’” the indictment reads, in part.
The conspiracy allegedly began in December 2018 and continued to the present day.
In total, the government alleges Kolfage received $350,000, which he used to pay for home renovations, a boat, a Land Rover Range Rover, “a golf cart, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt,” the indictment further reads.
The payments allegedly occurred between April and October 2019.
Bannon allegedly received at least $1 million from the fundraising donations, part of which he then paid to Kolfage, according to court documents.
Shea and Badolato are accused of funneling WBTW donations through shell corporations disguised as legitimate payments to Kolfage and his wife, Ashley, for various social media consulting services. In exchange, Shea and Badolato allegedly kept some of the money for themselves.
Bannon, who served on the board of directors for WBTW, allegedly controlled the entire operation, saying in a text message to Badolato, “no deals I don’t approve,” according to the indictment.
A vital part of the scheme, according to prosecutors, were multiple assertions by Kolfage that he would not personally benefit from the fundraising campaign. Those assertions were meant to promote more donations to WBTW.
“BANNON and BADOLATO, in a text message exchange, discussed how that message would help drive fundraising and opt-ins by prior donors because it would, as BADOLATO stated, become ‘the most talked about media narrative ever’ since it ‘removes all self-interest taint’ and ‘gives [B]rian Kolfage saint hood (sic),’” the indictment reads.
All four men made initial appearances in federal court Thursday.
Kolfage appeared in person in Pensacola, where he was later released on pretrial supervision pending arraignment in New York, court officials said.
Meanwhile, Bannon made his initial appearance at the Manhattan federal courthouse via videoconference, where he was simultaneously arraigned.
Bannon pleaded not guilty to both counts of the indictment and was released Thursday on a $5 million personal recognizance bond.
The judge ordered the bond be secured within two weeks via $1.75 million in cash or real property, and be backed by two co-signers.
The judge further ordered Bannon — who was arrested by federal authorities Thursday morning aboard a private yacht off the Connecticut coast — to not use private planes or boats without prior permission from the court.
Meanwhile, the arrest of a man who once served as one of the president’s closest advisers, as well as Brian Kolfage, has come as welcome news for Marianna Treviño Wright, who serves as executive director of the National Butterfly Center.
The NBC’s property sits adjacent to the land where North Dakota construction magnate Tommy Fisher constructed a 3-mile stretch of private border wall, in part, with funds from WBTW.
Since last December, Treviño Wright and the NBC have been locked in a civil lawsuit against Fisher, Kolfage, WBTW and local landowners, Neuhaus and Sons. The suit alleges, in part, that Kolfage defamed Treviño Wright via social media harassment and allegations the local environmentalist was instead participating in human trafficking in concert with Mexican cartels.
“It’s a good day when the bad guys get silver handcuffs, silver bracelets,” Treviño Wright said via phone Thursday.
The NBC has long contended the private wall project was nothing more than a money-making scheme. Thursday’s arrests prove that point, said Javier Peña, the attorney representing the butterfly center.
“This was always a scam. We knew it was a scam. That was part of our lawsuit all along,” Peña said.
“I think this just validates what we’ve been alleging all along — that those people that were accusing my client of committing crimes were the criminals all along,” he added moments later.
But the NBC isn’t the only one suing Fisher. The federal government also filed a civil suit against him alleging the project put the U.S. in violation of a 1970 international boundary treaty with Mexico.
Like the NBC, the government initially named Kolfage and WBTW in their suit, but ultimately dropped them from the suit after assertions by Kris Kobach — Kolfage’s attorney and formerly the Kansas Secretary of State — that WBTW had been minimal financial contributors to the project.
Indeed, Fisher himself said WBTW contributed only $1.5 million to the $42 million project.
Fisher has repeatedly tried to distance himself from Kolfage, saying he had little contact with the man after they officially cut ties sometime after the financial contributions came to an end. On Thursday, Fisher did so again.
“I don’t have any comments on their other personal business, except, you know, that we built the one project for them,” Fisher said in a phone interview Thursday.
The indictment against Bannon and Kolfage mentions that some $150,000 in payments were made in July or August 2019 via an unnamed co-conspirator — a construction contractor referred to as “Associate-2.”
Peña, speaking on that part of the indictment, said, “The only construction company that we are aware of that We Build the Wall worked with ever is Fisher Industries, the defendant in our case.”
But Fisher roundly denied the implication.
“I am not that contractor,” he said when asked directly if he was “Associate-2.”
Fisher declined to comment on the record further.
Since his involvement with WBTW began last year, however, Fisher has since secured some $2 billion in federal wall building contracts, including most recently a $289.5 million CBP project slated to be built near Laredo.
President Trump, who, during the 2016 campaign boasted that Mexico would pay for the wall, also sought to distance himself from the arrest of his former campaign adviser and the wall project.
“I haven’t been dealing with him at all,” Trump told reporters after news of the arrests broke, calling the private wall project “showboating.”
Bannon resigned from the president’s staff in August 2017.
“I think it’s a very sad thing for Mr. Bannon. I think it’s surprising,” Trump said.