By LARRY NEUMEISTER, COLLEEN LONG and JILL COLVIN Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty to charges that he ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme to build a southern border wall in federal court Thursday, hours after he was pulled from a yacht off the coast of Connecticut and arrested.
He and three others were charged in an indictment unsealed Thursday in Manhattan federal court.
At his hearing the same day, Bannon had his hands cuffed in front of him while a large, white mask covered most of his face. He rocked back and forward as he sat on a chair in a holding cell at Manhattan federal court, from where he appeared via video as his lawyers were on the telephone.
The “We Build The Wall” fundraiser was headed by men who pushed their close ties to President Trump, giving their effort a legitimacy that helped them raise more than $25 million.
But according to the criminal charges unsealed Thursday, much of the money never made it to the wall. Instead, it was used to line the pockets of group members, including Bannon, who served in Trump’s White House and worked for his campaign. He allegedly took over $1 million, using some to secretly pay co-defendant Brian Kolfage, the founder of the project, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.
The arrests make Bannon the latest addition to a startlingly long list of Trump associates who have been prosecuted, including his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Trump has also made clear that he is willing to use his near-limitless pardon power to help political allies escape legal jeopardy, most recently commuting the sentence of longtime political adviser Roger Stone.
Bannon was taken into custody by the postal inspection service on a 150-foot luxury yacht called Lady May, which was off the coast of Connecticut, authorities said.
Neither Bannon, nor his spokeswoman or attorney responded to requests for comment Thursday. Kolfage did not respond either.
Other prominent members of the group included former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, its general counsel; Erik Prince, founder of the controversial security firm Blackwater; former Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado; and former major league baseball pitcher Curtis Schilling. They were not named in the indictment.
Trump quickly distanced himself from Bannon while claiming he knew nothing about the project and never believed in a privately financed barrier.
“When I read about it, I didn’t like it. I said this is for government, this isn’t for private people. And it sounded to me like showboating,” he told reporters at the White House, adding that he felt “very badly” about the situation.
An immigration plan unveiled by Trump last year included a proposal to allow the public to donate toward his long-promised wall, as the Kolfage group had originally said was its mission before changing it to private construction of their own wall. But Trump later denounced the project publicly, tweeting last month that he “disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads” and claiming, “It was only done to make me look bad.”
Attorney General William Barr told The Associated Press he had been made aware of the investigation into Bannon months ago but did not say whether the president had been informed.
According to the indictment, the defendants used fake invoices, another nonprofit and sham vendor arrangements to try to hide their efforts. Under the arrangement, Bannon and his co-defendants allegedly paid Kolfage $100,000 up front and an additional $20,000 monthly, all while claiming they served as volunteers and that Kolfag was not paid.
The indictment said Kolfage “went so far as to send mass emails to his donors asking them to purchase coffee from his unrelated business, telling donors the coffee company was the only way he ‘keeps his family fed and a roof over their head.'”
Kolfage eventually spent some of the over $350,000 he received on home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and credit card debt.
Charges included conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering.
A phone at the office of Bannon’s lawyer went unanswered Thursday. It was not immediately clear who would represent Kolfage at an initial court appearance, and his phone was unanswered.
Originally called “We the People Build the Wall,” the campaign launched in December 2018 and raised approximately $17 million in its first week. But it soon drew scrutiny. The crowdfunding site that hosted it suspended the campaign and warned that it would return donations unless the money was transferred to a legitimate nonprofit. Bannon was brought in around that time, and the group took on its new name and changed its mission to building its own wall.
It originally promoted a project for 3 miles of fence posts in South Texas that was ultimately built and largely funded by Fisher Industries, which has received about $2 billion in funding for wall contracts. The company’s CEO, Tommy Fisher, did not respond to calls for comment.
In 2019, Kolfage and Fisher successfully constructed a half-mile of bollard-style border fence on privately donated land in New Mexico near of El Paso, Texas. We Build The Wall used early construction to raise more cash and more private land donations in along border states.
Construction faced resistance from local authorities in New Mexico and Texas and drew accusations of improper permitting. In May, federal officials found that a section of Fisher’s privately funded wall violated flood construction standards along the Rio Grande. It also caused erosion.
Dustin Stockton, who helped start the campaign then left the project to work on the upcoming presidential election, said it seemed clear that federal prosecutors were “attacking political infrastructure that supports President Trump right before the election.” He was not charged in the case.
Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign in its critical final months. He later served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Trump’s administration.
The combative Bannon was a voice of nationalist, outsider conservatism, and he was at the forefront of many of the administration’s most contentious policies, including its travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers and was pushed out.
Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs and as a Hollywood producer before turning to politics, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room” that began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.
A day before the indictment was unsealed, Kolfage was a featured guest on the show.
Long and Colvin reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz in New York, Nomaan Merchant in Northbrook, Illinois, Cedar Attanasio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Dave Collins in Hartford, Connecticut and Mike Balsamo in Cleveland contributed to this report.
In the early 1990s, Bannon worked with Fort Worth businessmen Ed Bass and Martin Bowen on an ecological project called Biosphere 2. Click here to read a 2017 article in New Yorker magazine that details the Fort Worth connection.