Bannon’s Co-Defendants Plead Not Guilty in Border Wall Case

Three defendants charged alongside Steve Bannon in the criminal case involving a private effort to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall pleaded not guilty, as a federal judge set a trial date for May of next year.

Brian Kolfage, Timothy Shea and longtime Bannon business partner Andrew Badolato entered their pleas virtually in federal court in lower Manhattan on Monday. Bannon, a onetime booster of President Donald Trump and an architect of his 2016 election campaign, pleaded not guilty after his arrest on Aug. 20.

Each is charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and money laundering. U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres set a trial date of May 24, 2021.

Prosecutors say the four men took more than $1 million in donor funds for personal use from We Build the Wall Inc. Kolfage, a disabled Iraqi war veteran, founded the initial fundraising effort in late 2018 amid frustration with delays in government construction of a southern border wall, a central Trump campaign pledge.

Kolfage began We Build the Wall as a crowd-sourcing campaign, but Bannon and the others joined the effort when he ran into difficulty accessing the funds on GoFundMe, prosecutors said. They created a charitable foundation, which took in $25 million from hundreds of thousands of donors, court records show.

While it proclaimed itself as all-volunteer and said none of the organizers would take any money, the four men secretly schemed to pay themselves out of its funds, prosecutors said. They funneled money through a separate foundation run by Bannon and got associates to kick back money to them after receiving payments, the government alleges.

Many Trump supporters, including some who struggled financially, donated to the fundraising effort, trusting that the money would go directly to the construction of the border wall, according to prosecutors.

Bannon, 66, was credited with helping Trump win the presidency as his campaign chairman. He went on to work in the White House as Trump’s chief strategist but left after seven months. While Bannon has had a rocky relationship with Trump, he’s been a vocal supporter of the president.

Badolato, 56, is an entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote for Bannon’s right-wing news outlet Breitbart News and earned producer credits on Bannon documentaries.

Kolfage, 38, an Air Force veteran who lost three limbs from wounds in Iraq, has said in social media posts that his arrest was an assault on freedom and a “witch hunt.” At the request of prosecutors, Torres reminded Kolfage of court rules barring public statements that could prejudice potential jurors.

Shea, 49, is the chief executive officer of a company that makes a Trump-themed beverage called Winning Energy, which purports to contain “ultra-hydrating liberal tears.” The energy drink can features a drawing of Trump in a Captain America-like costume. Shea’s wife is listed as the treasurer of We Build the Wall.

Bannon is free on a $5 million bond. Judge Torres on Monday approved bail packages agreed between prosecutors and the other three defendants, setting $500,000 bond for Kolfage and $250,000 for Badolato and Shea.

The lawyers and Judge Torres appeared by video conference. The defendants participated only by audio and could not be seen by the other participants or on a courthouse video feed for the press and public.

The case is U.S. v. Kolfage, 20-cr-00412, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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