Former Donald Trump campaign strategist Steve Bannon was arrested aboard a superyacht owned by a Chinese national and charged Thursday with defrauding hundreds of thousands of people as part of a group pledging to use private donations to build a section of border wall.
He and three others were charged in an indictment unsealed Thursday in Manhattan federal court.
At his hearing Thursday afternoon, Bannon,66, had his hands cuffed in front of him while a large, white mask covered most of his face. He was still wearing his distinctive two shirts.
He rocked back and forward as he sat on a chair in a holding cell at Manhattan federal court, from where he appeared via video as his lawyers were on the telephone.
The magistrate judge approved Bannon’s release on $5 million bail, secured by $1.75 million in assets.
The circumstances of his arrest – Bannon was on board the 150-foot yacht the Lady May owned by Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui in Long Island Sound, off the Connecticut coast, NBC News first reported – provided an odd twist that had a onetime top advisor to the president facing charges of helping swindle contributors by funneling charity donations to one of his partners and funding a ‘lavish’ lifestyle.
DailyMail.com obtained the last photographs of Bannon, hours before federal agents seized him in a dramatic arrest, checking his phone on the $35 million yacht just off Westbrook, CT.
The source who shot the photos said: ‘We saw the yacht come in on Tuesday night and the next day we saw a C-130 military plane circle over it, today [Thursday] there were more Coastguard military planes all around it.’
Bannon was arrested at 7.15am off the coast of Westbrook, CT.
Chinese authorities have accused Wengui of fraud. He has been pictured with Bannon aboard the megayacht, and this summer they were behind an effort to declare a new ‘Federal State of New China’ that flew flags towed by planes around New York Harbor.
Bannon helped make confronting China a centerpiece of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, a posture the president has continued into his tenure in office. Another key tenet of that election was building a wall on the southern border that Trump said Mexico – not the U.S. government – would pay for.
The We Build The Wall scheme raised $25 million to fund its own barriers in Texas and New Mexico, some of which have been built. The group’s online appeal for funds included a picture of President Trump and a stamp that said ‘Trump Approved.’ His son Don Jr. visited one section in Sunland Park, New Mexico, in July 2019.
But prosecutors say it was a scam: donors’ cash was also funneled to its founder Brian Kolfage and to Bannon.
Bannon, who helped steer Trump’s campaign then joined him in the White House in 2017 as chief strategist only to be forced out, is accused of getting $1 million in the alleged scheme, spending hundreds of thousands of that on ‘expenses.
The group’s founder, Kolfage, is also accused of fraudulently pocketing funds. He claimed he did not get a cent from the scheme but instead got $100,000 up front and $20,000 a month salary, prosecutors allege, living a lavish lifestyle at Miramar Beach in the Florida panhandle.
Kolfage, an Iraq war veteran who had both legs amputated and lost his right arm in a rocket attack, was arrested at his home in Florida.
At the White House Trump denied knowing anything about the scheme and tried to distance himself from his former campaign manager.
‘I feel very badly. I haven’t been dealing with him for a very long period of time,’ he said in the Oval Office, adding: ‘I haven’t been dealing with him at all. It’s a very sad thing by Mr. Bannon.’
‘He was involved in our campaign and for a small part of our administration.’ In fact Bannon was the campaign CEO for its last 88 days after the ousting of Paul Manafort – who is now a convicted felon himself – and then was Trump’s ‘Chief Strategist,’ with a West Wing office close to the Oval Office.
He also tried to distance himself from the scheme despite its ties to his inner circle, saying: ‘I don’t like that project. I thought it was being done for showboating reasons. It was something I very much thought was inappropriate to be doing.’
The stunning indictment of a top former Trump advisor comes on Day Four of the Democratic convention, when Joe Biden is set to speak.
‘No one needed a federal indictment to know that Steve Bannon is a fraud,’ said Biden deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield on a conference call with reporters.
Trump, she said, ‘has consistently used his office to enrich himself, his family and his cronies, so is it really any surprise that yet another one of the grifters he surrounded himself with and placed in the highest levels of government was just indicted? Sadly, it is not.’
The investigation did not involve the FBI – but did involve the U.S. Postal Inspectors. It was led by prosecutors from the public corruption unit of the United States Attorney’s office in Southern New York – the same unit which charged Jeffrey Esptein and arrested Ghislaine Maxwell.
The high-profile arrest raised immediate questions of whether main Justice Department officials were aware of the investigation into a one-time top advisor to the president.
Attorney General Bill Barr told the Associated Press he first learned of the probe several months ago but has not gotten regular briefings on the case.
Prosecutors say the group promised donors it was a volunteer effort that would direct all funds toward a crash effort to construct wall without government red tape. In reality, say federal prosecutors in New York, the group’s founders siphoned off funds for themselves.
‘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,’ according to the indictment unsealed in the Southern District of New York Thursday morning.
‘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,’ according to the indictment.
‘In particular, to induce donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage repeatedly and falsely assured the public that he would ‘not take a penny in salary or compensation’ and that ‘100% of the funds raised . . . will be used in the execution of our mission and purpose’ because, as Bannon publicly stated, ‘we’re a volunteer organization.’
The indictment states that Kolfage, 37, who lives in Miramar Beach, Florida, with his wife Ashley, 34, ‘covertly took for his personal use more than $350,000 in funds that donors had given to We Build the Wall’ through a non-profit he controlled.
It states that Bannon, 66, who became wealthy through film investments, consulting, and formerly running the conservative Breitbart website, ‘received over $1 million from We Build the Wall, at least some of which Bannon used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in Bannon’s personal expenses.’
Postal 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.’
The indictment says the alleged fraudsters used a non-profit and a shell company controlled by Kolfage.
They used fake invoices, sham vendors as part of the effort, keeping the system ‘confidential’ and ‘need to know,’ according to the indictment, which quotes from a Kolfage email.
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SOURCE: Daily Mail, Geoff Earle