Steve Bannon has pleaded not guilty to federal charges related to an alleged scheme to defraud a crowdfunding campaign that pledged to build a portion of the US-Mexico border wall.
He was arrested on Thursday morning on a Chinese billionaire’s yacht off the coast of Connecticut before appearing at his brief first court hearing in New York, where he pleaded not guilty to the fraud and money laundering charges against him.
Bond was set in the amount of $5 million, with $1.75 million secured in cash and property. He must surrender his passport and is restricted to travel only to parts of New York, Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia and Connecticut for work-related reasons. He also is prohibited from boarding private jets and yachts without court permission.
Three other men involved with a “We Build the Wall” charity were also charged on Thursday in one of the most politically charged cases connected to Donald Trump’s campaign in the hands of Acting US Attorney Audrey Strauss, who entered the role after her predecessor Geoffrey Berman was fired by the president earlier this summer.
Mr Bannon, a former aide to the president, and Brian Kolfage, Andy Badolato and Timothy Shea each face conspiracy counts that could carry a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison, if convicted.
“To induce donors to donate to the campaign, Kolfage and Bannon – each of whom, as detailed herein, exerted significant control over We Build the Wall – repeatedly and falsely assured the public that Kolfage would ‘not take a penny in salary or compensation’ and that ‘100% of the funds raised” would be used for the crowdfunding campaign’s stated purpose, according to a 24-page indictment filed in US District Court in New York and unsealed on Thursday.
“As Bannon publicly stated, ‘we’re a volunteer organisation,'” according to the indictment. “Those representations were false.”
The men “defrauded hundreds of thousands of donors, capitalising on their interest in funding a border wall to raise millions of dollars, under the false pretence that all of that money would be spent on construction” along the US-Mexico border, US Attorney Strauss said in a statement.
Instead, the campaign, which raised more than $25m, was used to fund their own lavish lifestyles through “sham invoices and accounts to launder donations” to conceal their crimes, according to Inspector-in-Charge Philip R Bartlett.
Mr Bannon allegedly took $1m from that campaign, some of which was used to cover personal expenses, according to prosecutors.
All four men were arrested on Thursday. Mr Bannon was arrested by agents with the New York Field Office of the United States Postal Inspection Service.
They were charged with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud as well as one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.
The president immediately sought to distance himself from the indictments, with White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany insisting that “President Trump has no involvement in this project and felt it was only being done in order to showboat, and perhaps raise funds.”