Border wall fraud trial of Trump aide set for May

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court, following his arraignment hearing for conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering, in New York, August 20, 2020.

Andrew Kelly | Reuters

A federal judge on Monday ordered that Steve Bannon, a former top aide to President Donald Trump, and three co-defendants begin trial on May 24, 2021, on charges of defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to a private campaign to build a southern border wall.

“I’m going to be optimistic,” said Judge Analisa Torres as she set that date.

Torres noted that the trial could be rescheduled given the coronvirus pandemic, which has significantly compromised the ability of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and other courts to conduct normal business.

Monday’s arraignment hearingreflected the effects of the pandemic.

It was held via videoconference, with non-participants, including reporters, able to listen via telepone.

Bannon, who was arrested on Aug. 20, previously pleaded not guilty, and is free on a $5 million bond that is to be secured by $1.75 million in cash or property as of this Thursday.

Bannon and three associates, Timothy Shea, Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, are accused of defrauding donors as they raised “more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States” for the We Build the Wall non-profit group.

“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,” Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement after the men were charged.

“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.”

Federal prosecutors have said that Bannon received $1 million in funds from We Build the Wall, and that to divert that money he created a separate non-profit whose ostensible purpose was “promoting economic nationalism and American sovereignty.” 

All four men are charged with one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud, and a single count of conspiring to commit money laundering.

Kolfage, a 37-year-old triple amputee, launched the crowdfunding campaign in late 2018 on GoFundMe to build the wall.

Kolfage had “repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would ‘not take a penny in salary,'” according to the indictment.

And Bannon had made public statements claiming ‘we’re a volunteer organization,'” the indicment said.

But in reality, according to court filings, the two men and their co-defendants received hundreds of thousands of donated dollars and used them for personal expenses.

Bannon, after his arrest, told reporters, “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.”

This is breaking news. Check back for updates.

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