New York, Aug 20 (efe-epa).- Steve Bannon, who ran Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and went on to hold a senior White House post for about six months, pleaded not guilty Thursday to diverting donations meant for the president’s promised wall on the border between the United States and Mexico.
He entered the plea via videolink hours after being taken into custody aboard a yacht in Long Island Sound near Westbrook, Connecticut.
A federal district judge in New York agreed to grant pretrial release on a $5 million bond, but ordered Bannon not to leave the country and barred him from any travel on private planes or boats without prior permission from the court.
The 66-year-old former Goldman Sachs executive and political consultant is accused along with three other people of redirecting more than $1 million in contributions to the We Build the Wall campaign toward defendants’ personal expenses.
The project drew upwards of $25 million in donations.
“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,” the acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Audrey Strauss, said in a statement.
Prosecutors lodged one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering against Bannon and Brian Kolfage, the disabled Iraq War veteran who founded We Build the Wall, along with two other men involved in the enterprise, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.
If convicted, the accused could face sentences of up to 20 years in prison.
The defendants, according to the indictment, assured donors that Kolfage “would not be paid a cent” even as they “secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle.”
Launched on GoFundMe, the campaign’s stated purpose was to build sections of border wall that would be donated to the government.
We Build the Wall initiated construction of the barrier on privately held land in Texas and New Mexico.
Soon after establishing the group, Kolfage, Bannon and Badolato reached a “secret agreement” calling for the founder to receive an initial payment of $100,000 to be followed by monthly commissions of $20,000, prosecutors said.
The money ostensibly reached Kolfage via a non-profit entity controlled by Bannon, who chaired We Build the Wall’s advisory board, and a shell company headed by Shea.
“The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds. 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,” Philip R. Bartlett, Inspector-in-Charge of the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service, said.
“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,” the inspector said.
“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,” the White House said.
Besides Bannon, the We Build the Wall advisory board includes several other people from the president’s orbit, including Kris Kobach, a former Kansas secretary of state who recently lost the Republican Senate primary.
Trump, who became president by virtue of the Electoral College, named Kobach to lead a panel investigating alleged voter fraud as the real estate mogul sought in vain for evidence to support his claim that his popular-vote loss to Democrat Hillary Clinton was due to cheating.
Another board member, Erik Prince, founded the mercenary company Blackwater – now called Academi – and has advised the president. He is also the brother of Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos.
“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,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday regarding We Build the Wall.