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Steve Bannon Charged With Misusing Donations For Trump's Border Wall

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

Steve Bannon, President Trump's former political adviser, has pleaded not guilty through his counsel to wire-fraud and money-laundering charges related to an online scheme that federal prosecutors said was responsible for defrauding hundreds of thousands of people.

Bannon appeared via video link in the Southern District of New York hours after his arrest Thursday morning on a yacht off the Connecticut coast.

Bannon and three other defendants are alleged to have orchestrated a scheme around an online crowdfunding campaign called "We Build the Wall," which has raised more than $25 million, according to prosecutors. The campaign was advertised as an effort to build portions of the wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and support maintenance operations.

"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," said Audrey Strauss, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

Authorities said Bannon was arrested on a 152-foot yacht off Westbrook, Conn.

Also named in the indictment is Brian Kolfage, founder and president of We Build the Wall, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea. Kolfage is an Air Force veteran who lost both of his legs and his right arm while on deployment in Iraq in 2004.

According to the indictment, the four men allegedly used sham invoices and accounts to cover their scheme.

"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," Strauss said.

Bannon — who publicly referred to We Build the Wall as a "volunteer organization" — is alleged to have received more than $1 million from the organization via a nonprofit he controls, and "at least some of it was used to cover hundreds of thousands of dollars in [his] personal expenses," according to the indictment.

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

Bannon was a top adviser to the Trump campaign in 2016, and following the president's inauguration, he went on to become White House chief strategist.

Thursday's indictment adds his name to a list of five other men with key roles or close ties to the 2016 Trump campaign who have faced federal charges: Paul Manafort, the former campaign chairman; Rick Gates, who was the campaign's deputy chairman; Michael Flynn, a campaign adviser who went on to become Trump's first national security adviser; Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser; and Michael Cohen, his former attorney and fixer.

A Justice Department official said Attorney General William Barr was briefed on the Bannon case and knew an indictment was coming Thursday.

In brief remarks about the case, President Trump said he felt "very badly" but added that he had not been dealing with Bannon "for a very long period of time." Bannon left the White House in August 2017.

"I don't like that project," Trump said. "I thought it was being done for showboating reasons."

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said in a statement that Trump had previously disavowed the We Build the Wall project.

"President Trump has always felt the Wall must be a government project and that it is far too big and complex to be handled privately," she said, adding: "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."

Read the indictment below.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.