Steve Bannon, chief strategist to President Donald Trump during the latter’s first year in office, was arrested today and charged with defrauding hundreds of thousands of people who donated money for the private construction of sections of wall on the US-Mexican border.
Three other men – Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea – were also arrested and charged for their alleged roles in what prosecutors claimed was a scam to channel cash from a crowdfunding campaign known as "We Build the Wall", which has raised more than $25m, into their own pockets.
The indictment, unsealed today by the US Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York (SDNY), said Bannon and Kolfage – a triple-amputee Air Force veteran – told donors that no money at all would be spent on salaries or compensation, with Bannon declaring "we’re a volunteer organisation".
The money was supposed to be spent entirely on designing, building and maintaining sections of wall on private land that filled gaps in the existing southern border wall system.
However, special SDNY agents and the US Postal Inspection Service found evidence suggesting the men siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Bannon is accused of receiving $1m, some of which prosecutors allege he used for personal expenses, and Kolfage is accused of receiving $350,000.
Prosecutors allege the scheme started in approximately December 2018.
"The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds," stated Inspector-in-Charge Philip R. Bartlett.
"As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth. This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist."
Each of the accused is charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, each of which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Responding to news of the arrests, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters today: "President Trump has always felt the Wall must be a government project and that it is far too big and complex to be handled privately.
"President Trump has not been involved with Steve Bannon since the campaign and the early part of the Administration, and he does not know the people involved with this project."
Image: A section of wall built by the "We Build the Wall" campaign, from its Facebook page