Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was charged Thursday in New York with defrauding donors who were giving money to build a wall at the southern U.S. border.
Bannon, 68, was indicted on charges including money laundering, scheming to defraud, and conspiracy in what prosecutors described as a yearlong scheme. He pleaded not guilty in a brief arraignment before acting Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan and agreed to surrender his passports as a condition of his bail. Supreme Court is the name of New York’s principal criminal court.
“He’s not going anywhere. He intends to fight these charges all the way,” Bannon's attorney David Schoen told the judge.
The six-count indictment also names the group WeBuildTheWall.Inc, which it says worked with Bannon on the scheme in 2019. Bannon was chair of the "advisory board" for the group, which prosecutors say duped thousands of donors by maintaining that all the money raised would go to build a wall along the southern border and not to the people running the effort.
The group's president, Brian Kolfage, who is not named in the indictment, pocketed hundreds of thousands of dollars from the scheme, the filing alleges. Some of the money was routed to him by Bannon, who had money from the campaign transferred to a nonprofit group under Bannon's control and then used the cash to pay Kolfage $140,000, the indictment alleges.
Prosecutors allege that Bannon was well aware that the group was publicizing that Kolfage was telling donors "I’m taking zero dollars of a salary, no compensation" and that Bannon had echoed the claims himself.
In a statement, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said Bannon "acted as the architect of a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud thousands of donors across the country — including hundreds of Manhattan residents."
“It is a crime to turn a profit by lying to donors, and in New York, you will be held accountable,” Bragg said. He said later at a news conference that if he is convicted, Bannon faces a maximum of five to 15 years in prison.
State Attorney General Letitia James, whose office teamed up with the district attorney in the probe, said that Bannon "took advantage of his donors’ political views to secure millions of dollars which he then misappropriated" and that he "lied to his donors to enrich himself and his friends."
In a statement to NBC News on Tuesday, Bannon said, “This is nothing more than a partisan political weaponization of the criminal justice system.”
NBC News reported in February 2021 that the district attorney’s office had opened an investigation into Bannon's involvement in the alleged scam a month after Trump pardoned him. Presidential pardons only apply to federal cases, meaning New York is not prohibited from pursuing similar charges.
The federal case alleged that Bannon was one of four people who "orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors” out of some of the more than $25 million raised through an online crowdfunding campaign to help fulfill Trump's pledge to build a border wall. Federal authorities said Bannon used his nonprofit organization to receive more than $1 million of wall-building funds.
Two of Bannon's co-defendants in the federal case, Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, pleaded guilty in April and are scheduled to be sentenced in December. A trial for the third co-defendant, Timothy Shea, ended in a mistrial in June, when the jury deadlocked and could not reach a verdict. Shea is scheduled to be retried in October.
Bannon is also awaiting sentencing after he was convicted of misdemeanor contempt of Congress for snubbing subpoenas from the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. He faces up to a year in jail and $100,000 in fines.
Bannon's case is not the first brought by the New York district attorney's office involving the former president's allies.
In June 2021, the office charged the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer at the time, Allen Weisselberg, with tax fraud and other charges in what they described as a sweeping 15-year scheme to compensate top executives “off the books” and help them avoid paying taxes.
Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty last month, is expected to testify against the company when the case goes to trial in October.
The company pleaded not guilty, and Trump has not been charged in the case. He has, however, insisted that the investigation is part of a political "witch hunt" against him, and he has accused Bragg, who is Black, of being a "racist" for pursuing the case.
The case was initially brought by Bragg's predecessor, Cyrus Vance.
Vance also brought a criminal case in 2019 against Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort, alleging he falsified business records to obtain millions of dollars in residential mortgage loans. The case was dismissed on double jeopardy grounds, as Manafort had already been tried and convicted for related crimes uncovered by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Manafort's case is not likely to help Bannon. The state passed a law in late 2019 that allows its prosecutors to pursue investigations into any recipient of a presidential pardon who served in a president’s administration, worked directly or indirectly to advance a presidential campaign or transition or worked at a nonprofit group or a business controlled by a president and whose alleged criminal activity took place in New York.
CORRECTION (Sept. 8, 2022, 7 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when the Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg were charged with tax fraud and other charges. It was in June 2021, not this June.