Steve Bannon, a former White House adviser to President Trump and ex editor-in-chief of Breitbart, has pleaded not guilty to charges of fraud relating to an online fundraising campaign to build a privately owned wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Bannon appeared by video conference in a Manhattan federal court on Thursday, Aug. 20, handcuffed and wearing a white mask to enter his plea of not guilty, with the judge setting bail at $5 million, secured by $1.75 million in assets.
The charges contained in the indictment are only accusations. The defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
The “We Build The Wall” was a fundraiser that netted more than$25 million, and Bannon, along with three others, including operator Brian Kolfage, has been charged with allegedly using online platforms such as GoFundMe to defraud donors of hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Also charged were Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, the owner of an energy drink company named Winning Energy.
Criminal charges laid against Bannon are that he allegedly skimmed off more than $1 million, with some of that money going to the founder of the project and co-defendant, Brian Kolfage, with much of the money never making it to the wall.
“As alleged, 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 for the Southern district of New York Audrey Strauss said in a statement.
“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,” read the statement.
Bannon, who was arrested hours earlier on a luxury yacht called Lady May, owned by exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, which was moored off the coast of Connecticut, according to AP, reported Breitbart.
Guo enlisted Bannon in 2018, after claiming he had invested $US100 million to uncover abuses of power in the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party, and also to establish a pro-democracy movement called the New Federal State of China, reported the Sydney Morning Herald.
Bannon becomes the most recent in a long list of allies of the president to be arrested, including his former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, whom Bannon replaced, his longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
After learning of Bannon’s arrest, the president said of the “We Build The Wall Project,” “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.
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.