A federal judge on Monday ordered that Steve Bannon, a former top aide to President Donald Trump, and three co-defendants begin trial on May 24, 2021, on charges of defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors to a private campaign to build a southern border wall.
“I’m going to be optimistic,” said Judge Analisa Torres as she set that date and set release bonds for Bannon’s three alleged co-conspirators.
Torres noted that the trial could be rescheduled given the coronavirus pandemic, which has significantly compromised the ability of the U.S. District Court in Manhattan and other courts to conduct normal business.
Monday’s arraignment hearing reflected the effects of the pandemic.
It was held via videoconference, with nonparticipants, including reporters, able to listen via telephone.
Bannon, who was arrested on Aug. 20, previously had pleaded not guilty and been set free on a $5 million bond that is to be secured by $1.75 million in cash or property as of this Thursday. Bannon was taken into custody aboard a 150-foot yacht off the coast of Connecticut. The ship is owned by Guo Wengui, a Chinese billionaire and associate of Bannon’s.
Bannon, who once was Trump’s chief strategist, and three associates, Timothy Shea, Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, are accused of defrauding donors as they raised “more than $25 million to build a wall along the southern border of the United States” for the We Build the Wall nonprofit group.
Torres on Monday set bond at $500,000 for Kolfage and at $250,000 for Shea and Badolato.
Acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss, after the men were charged two weeks ago, said in a statement, “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.”
“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.”
Federal prosecutors have said that Bannon received $1 million in funds from We Build the Wall, and that to divert that money used a separate nonprofit he had already created, whose ostensible purpose was “promoting economic nationalism and American sovereignty.”
All four men are charged with one count of conspiring to commit wire fraud, and a single count of conspiring to commit money laundering.
Kolfage, a 37-year-old triple amputee, launched the crowdfunding campaign in late 2018 on GoFundMe to build the wall.
Kolfage had “repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would ‘not take a penny in salary,’” according to the indictment. But he actually received more than $350,000 from the group, prosecutors said.
And Bannon had made public statements claiming ‘we’re a volunteer organization,’” the indictment said.
Bannon, after his arrest, told reporters, “This entire fiasco is to stop people who want to build the wall.”