21/08/2020 8:36 AM AEST

Former Trump Strategist Steve Bannon Pleads Not Guilty In 'Build The Wall' Scheme

The former Trump campaign executive was arrested Thursday morning. A grand jury said he used donated funds to cover personal expenses.

Steve Bannon, a former chief strategist in President Donald Trump’s White House, was arrested on Thursday after a grand jury indicted him on federal charges for allegedly using hundreds of thousands of dollars from an online “We Build The Wall” fundraiser to cover his personal expenses.

He pleaded not guilty at a hearing Thursday afternoon.

Bannon and three others ― Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea ― were charged in connection with their roles in “defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with an online crowdfunding campaign known as ‘We Build the Wall’ that raised more than $25 million,” the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York announced Thursday morning.

The four defendants are each charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. 

Former White House strategist Steve Bannon in November 2019, speaking to reporters after testifying at the federal trial of Roger Stone, another Trump associate. Bannon himself was federally indicted on Thursday.

Kolfage, the founder of “We Build the Wall,” had assured donors that all the money would go toward construction of a wall along the US-Mexico border, acting US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Audrey Strauss said in a statement. But the defendants “secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle,” she said.

Bannon, 66, received over $1 million from the crowdfunding campaign, which he funnelled through a nonprofit that he operates, according to prosecutors. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of that money reportedly went toward his personal expenses.

Following news of the indictments, Trump on Thursday tried to distance himself from Bannon, who was a top aide on Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“Well, I feel very badly,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I haven’t been dealing with him for a long period of time. ... He worked for a lot of companies. But he was involved likewise in our campaign and for a small part of the administration very early on. I haven’t been dealing with him at all.”

Trump said he knows “nothing” about the “We Build the Wall” campaign.

“When I read about it, I didn’t like it,” he said. “I said, this is for government, this isn’t for private people. ... But you’ll have to see what happens. I think it’s a very sad thing for Mr. Bannon. I think it was surprising.”

The “We Build the Wall” website, prosecutors said, claimed that “100% of your donations” would be given to the government to construct the wall on the Mexican border. 

But the indictment alleges Kolfage used funds “to pay for his own personal expenses, including, among other purposes, home renovations, payments toward a boat, a luxury SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments, and credit card debt.” 

Bannon, Badolato and Shea used money “to pay for a variety of personal expenses, including, among other things, travel, hotels, consumer goods, and personal credit card debts.”

The foursome, according to the indictment, “repeatedly and intentionally led the public to believe that none of their donations would be used for the personal benefit of the defendants.”

Back in June, Trump fired former US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Geoffrey Berman after he refused to step aside. Attorney General William Barr issued a misleading public statement claiming that Berman was “stepping down” before Berman agreed to make any such move. Berman later testified that Barr “repeatedly urged” him to resign and that there were investigations that he “wanted to see through to completion.”

Read the indictment below.