Steve Bannon Pleads Not Guilty to Fraud and Money Laundering Charges in Alleged Border Wall Scheme
- Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty to fraud and money laundering charges on Thursday, hours after he and three others were arrested for defrauding hundreds of thousands of people who donated to the We Build the Wall fundraising campaign.
- The campaign, which was started by a Brian Kolfage in 2018, raised $25 million from half a million donors, which the organization leaders said they would use to privately build segments of Trump’s long-touted border wall.
- However, the indictment accuses the men of taking donations for themselves and routing funds through a nonprofit and a shell company.
- Bannon is accused of taking over $1 million, and Kolfage is accused of taking over $350,000.
- All four face 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.
We Build the Wall Campaign
In a virtual court appearance Thursday, President Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon pleaded not guilty after he and three others were arrested for defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors who gave money to the We Build the Wall fundraising campaign.
The campaign was first started as a viral crowdfunding campaign by purple heart veteran and triple amputee Brian Kolfage in December 2018. The GoFundMe had the goal of raising $1 billion to build part of the border wall for Trump.
At the time, Kolfage told reporters that he started the fundraiser because “political games from both parties” were holding back funding for the wall, and said that his campaign was about “giving the people the power.”
On the GoFundMe page, which has since been removed, Kolfage promised that, no matter what, “100% of your donations will go to the Trump Wall. If for ANY reason we don’t reach our goal we will refund your donation.”
Just a month later, in January 2019, Kolfage decided that it would be more effective to raise money through a nonprofit instead. Rather than giving the Trump administration the money, the nonprofit would use it to privately build segments of the wall through negotiations with people who owned land along the southern border.
As for the over $20 million he had already raised from nearly 340,000 donors, Kolfage said that they could either get their money back or redirect it to the nonprofit. A GoFundMe spokesperson said at the time that because of the promises Kolfage had made, all donors would automatically get refunds unless they manually redirect their donations.
Around that time, Kolfage created the nonprofit to continue raising money, and according to their website, We Build the Wall has received $25 million from half a million donors.
Notably, Kolfage also got several significant Republican figures to sign as advisory board members, including Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo. Bannon served as chairman of the board.
The charges unveiled Thursday allege that Bannon, Kolfage, and two other men named Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea, stole donations to the campaign for personal use by routing contributions through the nonprofit and shell companies.
According to a statement from the Justice Department, the unsealed indictment claims the four men, “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.”
To encourage people to donate, the indictment alleges that 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 prosectuors lists the numerous claims Kolfage made about not collecting money from the organization, including sending mass emails to donors asking them to buy from a coffee company he owned and telling them it was the only way he “keeps his family fed and a roof over their head” because he was taking “no compensation” from the nonprofit.
According to the indictment, Kolfage also repeatedly touted the bylaws the nonprofit put in place, publicly claiming they said he was to receive no salary and even once going as far as to say, “It’s not possible to steal the money.” Both he and Bannon have additionally said that the advisory board members would not be compensated.
Prosecutors say all those claims were false, and that in reality, all four men were taking a cut, with them allegedly using the money “for a variety of personal expenses, including, among other things, travel, hotel, consumer goods and personal credit card debts.”
According to the indictment, despite his many public statements, within just days of launching We Build a Wall, Kolfage reached a secret agreement with the other defendants under which he would be paid $100,000 upfront and then 20,000 per each month following.
In total, the indictment claims Kolfage took over $350,000 of the donations which he spent on boat payments, a luxury S.U.V., a golf cart, and cosmetic surgery, among other things. Bannon, for his part, allegedly took more than $1 million, which he allegedly used to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal expenses.
To conceal the payments, the prosecutors say the defendants “devised a scheme” to route them through a separate nonprofit owned by Bannon and a shell company by “using fake invoices and sham ‘vendor’ arrangements, among other ways.”
When they learned last October that they may be under criminal investigation, the website for We Build a Wall was changed “to remove any mention of the promise Kolfage was not being compensated and to add a statement that he would be paid a salary starting January 2020,” the indictment says.
All four men have each been 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.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Axios)
Debt Limit Bill Passes the House — Here’s What You Need to Know
The salient features of the package include changes to food stamp eligibility, an end to the pause on student loan repayments, and a controversial pipeline, among other measures.
Congress Passes Debt Deal
With the clock ticking, the House of Representatives on Wednesday passed a package to raise the debt ceiling after weeks of negotiations.
At the very top level, the deal suspends the $31.4 trillion borrowing limit until Jan. 2025 in exchange for a range of spending cuts and caps. According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), the bill would cut federal spending by $1.5 trillion over the next decade.
One of the most talked about parts of the legislation is the measure that would end the multi-year freeze on student loan repayments and require borrowers to resume paying again in September.
The move will have a huge impact: 45 million Americans have student loans, totaling $1.6 trillion, making this the single biggest consumer debt Americans owe after mortgages.
Requiring people to repay their loans at a time when the economy is struggling and inflation continues to soar will put a dent in income for many folks. Joseph Brusuelas, the chief economist for consulting firm RSM US, told The Washington Post that households could see a $40 billion reduction in disposable income as a direct result of the policy.
Notably, the deal does not scrap President Joe Biden’s sweeping student loan forgiveness, as Republicans had proposed in an earlier draft. That matter is still playing out before the Supreme Court.
Changes to SNAP and TANF Benefits
Another major component that could hurt millions of Americans already struggling with high prices are the proposed cuts to food stamps — officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP.)
Specifically, the bill would expand the work requirements for SNAP eligibility. Under current eligibility rules, adults up to age 49 are required to either work or participate in a training program for a minimum of 80 hours a month with exceptions for people who are pregnant, live with children, or have certain disabilities.
The debt ceiling deal would raise the age of people who have to meet those work requirements to 54. That alone could risk hundreds of thousands of Americans losing their essential food assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Ty Jones Cox, vice president of food assistance at CBPP, explained to The Post that many older adults work part-time or seasonal jobs and thus may not reach the 80-hour-a-month requirement.
Despite the fact that the cuts to food stamps were one of the biggest Republican sticking points and one they have widely touted, the debt deal does include some major expansions to SNAP eligibility.
In addition to expanding work requirements, it also creates new exceptions for those requirements that will be extended to veterans, homeless Americans, and people 18 to 24 who were previously in foster care.
In a tweet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge said the move represents the first time ever that people experiencing homelessness will not have to meet work requirements to qualify for SNAP.
As a result, the CBO estimates that the number of SNAP recipients would actually grow by 78,000 on average and increase spending by $2.1 billion.
In a similar vein, another part of the deal that could impact many Americans is a measure that would implement changes to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is a program that provides temporary cash for families in need.
The legislation would overhaul a framework for state TANF programs that would effectively require states to expand work requirements. The actual effect will vary by state, but the CBO estimated that the move would slightly reduce the amount of money the federal government gives to states for the program.
An additional provision in this bill that has been getting a lot of attention — and a lot of backlash — would fast-track the building of a natural gas pipeline in West Virginia.
Completion of the 303-mile Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) — which would cut through federal forests and hundreds of dozens of waterways and wetlands — has been stalled by numerous court fights and environmental regulations.
Construction has gone millions of dollars over budget and violated many clean water laws. According to the environmental group Appalachian Voices, MVP has made more than 500 violations in two states.
The debt deal would speed up permitting for the project, make it basically impossible for environmental groups to bring legal challenges for government approvals, and shift jurisdiction away from regional courts that have continuously ruled against MVP.
The pipeline has been championed by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), who has raked in three times more money from pipeline companies than any other member of Congress, according to Open Secrets.
Manchin’s vote will be essential to passing the debt deal in the narrowly divided Senate, and Biden promised him he would expedite the pipeline in exchange for his vote on the sweeping climate spending bill last year that the senator had single-handedly held up.
Other Notable Measures — and What Was Left Out
MVP is not the only provision in the legislation that has angered environmentalists. The deal would also streamline environmental permitting for huge energy projects, including ones on fossil fuels.
There are a number of other notable measures included in the package, including proposals to cut $20 billion in funding for the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and claw back around $27 billion in COVID relief funds.
The bill would also mandate that significant expenditures be offset with pay-as-you-go spending reductions, as well as cap non-defense discretionary spending — a broad category that includes funding for education, national parks, and scientific research.
Also worth noting are the issues that were left out of the deal. Specifically, the package does not touch military spending or entitlements Republicans had floated cutting like Social Security and Medicare.
That is significant because those areas make up the country’s largest expenses by far — totaling nearly 80% of last year’s budget alone and costing $4.9 trillion.
Much of Biden’s domestic agenda was largely spared from the sweeping cuts and caps Republicans initially wanted. As a result, many experts have noted that the debt deal ultimately is not expected to bring down the U.S. deficit.
Deutsche Bank analysts estimated that the annual deficit reduction will only be “a few tenths of a percentage point.”
A Mixed Bag for McCarthy
Beyond having sweeping implications for America, this debt ceiling deal also has high political stakes — especially for House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Ca.).
The package was arguably the biggest test of his career as speaker, and while he did ultimately achieve his goal of passing a bill that cut spending and proved he could pass bipartisan legislation, it came at a cost.
The final version of this debt bill was significantly whittled down from the first one House Republicans passed as their starting point for negotiations, and he was only able to get it through the chamber with significant help from Democrats.
The entire deal nearly fell apart before it got to the House floor because far-right Republicans moved to block the measure from consideration in a major snub to McCarthy, forcing Democrats to swoop in.
Once the bill was finally put to a vote, it passed with more support from Democrats than Republicans. Democrats voted 165 in favor and 46 against, while 149 Republicans backed the measure and 71 opposed it.
That is still a solid 2-to-1 ratio of Republican support for McCarthy, but numerous members of the far-right wing of his party have threatened to oust him as speaker over the debt deal, including some who have specifically said they would do so if the bill passed with more support from Democrats than Republicans.
The debt deal now moves to the Senate, where both Democratic and Republican leadership have pushed for their members to fast-track the bill so it can get to Biden’s desk by Monday — the deadline to suspend the debt ceiling.
A couple of Senators on both sides are threatening to slow down the bill with amendments. While Republicans are calling for more spending cuts, Democrats want to remove the provision expediting the MVP pipeline.
However, because any amendments require a 60-vote threshold, these proposals are mostly symbolic. Especially because any changes would force the bill back to the House — and there is not enough time.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (Axios)
Texas State Senate Sets Date for AG Ken Paxton’s Impeachment Trial
The House impeached Paxton on 20 articles, including bribery, abuse of public trust, and dereliction of duty.
The Texas State Senate on Monday adopted a resolution outlining how the impeachment trial of Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) will play out in the upper chamber.
The proceedings, which will be over seen by the Lieutenant Governor, will start no later than Aug. 28. The move comes after the House voted to impeach Paxton on Saturday 121 to 23, with a majority of Republicans voting in favor. The historic vote marks just the third time a public official has been impeached in Texas’ nearly 200-year history. The most recent impeachment was nearly five decades ago.
The decision follows a tumultuous week for Texas Republicans and further highlights the growing rifts within the party.
The divisions first came to a head last Tuesday when Paxton called for Speaker of the House Dade Phelan (R) to step down after he presided over the floor while seemingly intoxicated. Mere hours later, the Republican-led General Investigating Committee announced that it had been investigating Paxton for months.
On Thursday, the committee unanimously recommended that Paxton be impeached and removed from office, prompting a full floor vote over the weekend.
Articles of Impeachment
In total, 20 articles of impeachment were brought against Paxton, including bribery, abuse of public trust, dereliction of duty, and more.
While there is a wide range of allegations, many first surfaced in Oct. 2020, when seven of Paxton’s top aides published a letter they had sent to the Attorney General’s director of human resources.
The letter accused Paxton of committing several crimes and asked the FBI to launch an investigation, which it did.
The staffers claimed that Paxton had abused his office to benefit Nate Paul, an Austin real estate developer and friend of Paxton’s who donated $25,000 to his 2018 campaign. Many of the impeachment articles concern Paxton’s alleged efforts to try and protect Paul from an FBI investigation he was facing in 2020.
Specifically, Paxton is accused of attempting to interfere in foreclosure lawsuits and issuing legal opinions that benefitted Paul, improperly obtaining undisclosed information to give him, and violating agency policies by appointing an outside attorney to investigate baseless claims and issue subpoenas to help the developer and his businesses.
In exchange, Paul allegedly helped Paxton by hiring a woman the Attorney General was having an affair with and paying for expensive renovations to Paxton’s home. According to the articles, that swap amounted to bribery.
Beyond Paxton’s relationship with Paul, many impeachment articles also concern how the top lawyer handled the 2020 letter.
In particular, Paxton is accused of violating Texas’ whistleblower law by firing four of the staffers who reported him in retaliation, misusing public funds to launch a sham investigation into the whistleblowers, and making false official statements in his response to the allegations.
The Attorney General also allegedly tried to conceal his wrongdoing by entering into a $3.3 million settlement with the fired staffers. The settlement is especially notable as House leaders have explicitly said they launched their probe into Paxton because he had asked the state legislature to approve taxpayer money to pay for that settlement.
Additionally, the impeachment articles outline several charges relating to a securities fraud case that Paxton was indicted for in 2015 but has not been charged in. The charges there include lying to state investigators and obstructing justice.
Paxton, for his part, has denied the allegations. On Saturday, the Attorney General issued a statement seeking to politicize the matter, claiming his impeachment was “illegal” and a “politically motivated scam.”
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Associated Press) (The New York Times)
Trump Lawyer Notes Indicate Former President May Have Obstructed Justice in Mar-a-Lago Documents Probe
The notes add to a series of recent reports that seem to paint a picture of possible obstruction.
Corcoran’s Notes on Mar-a-Lago
Prosecutors have 50 pages of notes from Donald Trump’s lawyer Evan Corcoran that show the former president was explicitly told he could not keep any more classified documents after he was subpoenaed for their return, according to a new report by The Guardian.
The notes, which were disclosed by three people familiar with the matter, present new evidence that indicates Trump obstructed justice in the investigation into classified documents he improperly kept at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
In June, Corcoran found around 40 classified documents in a storage room at Mar-a-Lago while complying with the initial subpoena. The attorney told the Justice Department that no additional documents were on the property.
In August, however, the FBI raided Mar-a-Lago and discovered about 100 more.
The Guardian’s report is significant because it adds a piece to the puzzle prosecutors are trying to put together: whether Trump obstructed justice when he failed to comply with the subpoena by refusing to return all the documents he had or even trying to hide them intentionally.
As the outlet noted, prosecutors have been “fixated” on Trump’s valet, Walt Nauta, since he told them that the former president directed him to move boxes out of the storage room before and after the subpoena. His actions were also captured on surveillance footage.
The sources familiar with Corcoran’s notes said the pages revealed that both Trump and the Nauta “had unusually detailed knowledge of the botched subpoena response, including where Corcoran intended to search and not search for classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, as well as when Corcoran was actually doing his search.”
At one point, Corcoran allegedly noted how he had told the Nauta about the subpoena prior to his search for the documents because the lawyer needed him to unlock the storage room, showing how closely involved the valet was from the get-go.
Corcoran further stated that Nauta had even offered to help go through the boxes, but the attorney declined. Beyond that, the report also asserted that the notes “suggested to prosecutors that there were times when the storage room might have been left unattended while the search for classified documents was ongoing.”
Adding to the Evidence
If real, Corcoran’s notes are very damning, especially considering other recent reports concerning Trump’s possible efforts to obstruct the documents probe.
A few weeks ago, The New York Times reported that Corcoran had testified before a grand jury that multiple Trump employees told him the Mar-a-Lago storage room was the only place the documents were kept.
“Although Mr. Corcoran testified that Mr. Trump did not personally convey that false information, his testimony hardly absolved the former president,” the outlet reported, referencing people with knowledge of the matter.
“Mr. Corcoran also recounted to the grand jury how Mr. Trump did not tell his lawyers of any other locations where the documents were stored, which may have effectively misled the legal team.”
Additionally, the only reason that Corcoran handed over these notes was that he was under court order to do so. Corcoran had refused to turn the materials over, citing attorney-client privilege.
A federal judge rejected that claim on the grounds that there was reason to believe a lawyer’s advice or services were used to further a crime — meaning prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to prove Trump may have acted criminally.