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Ex-Trump adviser Steve Bannon arrested in connection with online fundraising scheme

President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon was fired in August 2019. Bannon was largely known to be behind Trump's "nationalist" campaign strategy and was perceived as one of the administration's more controversial members.
President Donald Trump's chief strategist Steve Bannon was fired in August 2019. Bannon was largely known to be behind Trump's "nationalist" campaign strategy and was perceived as one of the administration's more controversial members. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

NEW YORK – Former White House adviser Steve Bannon was arrested Thursday on charges that he and three others ripped off donors to an online fundraising scheme “We Build The Wall.”

The charges were contained in an indictment unsealed in Manhattan federal court that alleged Bannon received over $1 million himself, using some to secretly pay a co-defendant, Brian Kolfage, and to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars of Bannon's personal expenses.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Bannon and three others “orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors” in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign that raised more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States.

According to the indictment, Bannon promised that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project, but the defendants collectively used hundreds of thousands of dollars in a manner inconsistent with the organization’s public representations.

The indictment said they faked invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening.

The defendants learned last October from a financial institution that the “We Build the Wall” campaign might be under federal criminal investigation and took additional steps to conceal the fraud, according to the indictment.

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 morning. A spokeswoman for Bannon did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It was not immediately clear who would represent Kolfage at an initial court appearance.

According to the indictment, Bannon promised that 100% of the donated money would be used for the project and no one would be compensated, but the defendants collectively used hundreds of thousands of dollars in a manner inconsistent with the organization's public representations.

The indictment said they faked invoices and sham “vendor” arrangements, among other ways, to hide what was really happening.

“It’s not possible to steal the money,” Kolfage once said publicly, according to the indictment. “I can’t touch that money. It’s not for me.”

We Build the Wall 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. Tommy Fisher, CEO, didn’t respond to calls for comment.

Trump recently criticized that section of wall after it showed signs of erosion, saying it was “only done to make me look bad,” even though it was built by his supporters.

Bannon led the conservative Breitbart News before being tapped to serve as chief executive officer of Trump’s campaign in its critical final months, when he pushed a scorched earth strategy that included highlighting the stories of former President Bill Clinton’s accusers. After the election, he served as chief strategist during the turbulent early months of Trump’s administration.

The blunt-spoken, combative Bannon was the voice of a nationalistic, outsider conservatism, and he pushed Trump to follow through on some of his most contentious campaign promises, including his travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. But Bannon also clashed with other top advisers, and his high profile sometimes irked Trump. He was pushed out in August 2017.

Bannon, who served in the Navy and worked as an investment banker at Goldman Sachs before becoming a Hollywood producer, has been hosting a pro-Trump podcast called “War Room” that began during the president’s impeachment proceedings and has continued during the pandemic.

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Long and Colvin reported from Washington. AP reporter Jennifer Peltz contributed from New York.