- 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)
Biden Mistakenly Calls Out For Dead Lawmaker at White House Event
The remarks prompted concerns about the mental state of the president, who previously mourned the congresswoman’s death in an official White House statement.
Video of President Joe Biden publicly asking if a congresswoman who died last month was present at a White House event went viral Wednesday, giving rise to renewed questions about the leader’s mental acuity.
The remarks were made at the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health, which Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-In.) had helped convene and organize before her sudden death in a car accident.
The president thanked the group of bipartisan lawmakers who helped make the event happen, listing them off one by one, and appearing to look around in search of Rep. Walorski when he reached her name.
“Jackie, are you here? Where’s Jackie?” he called. “I think she wasn’t going to be here to help make this a reality.”
The incident flummoxed many, especially because Biden had even acknowledged her work on the conference in an official White House statement following her death last month.
“Jill and I are shocked and saddened by the death of Congresswoman Jackie Walorski of Indiana along with two members of her staff in a car accident today in Indiana,” the statement read.
“I appreciated her partnership as we plan for a historic White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health this fall that will be marked by her deep care for the needs of rural America.”
The Age Maximum Question
Numerous social media users and news outlets presented the mishap as evidence that Biden, who is 79, does not have the mental capacity to serve as president. Others, meanwhile, raised the possibility of imposing an age maximum for the presidency.
Most of the comments against the president came from the right, which has regularly questioned his mental stability. However, the idea of an age limit goes beyond Biden and touches on concerns about America’s most important leaders being too old.
While Biden is the oldest president in history, former President Donald Trump — who is 76 and has also had his mental state continually questioned — would have likewise held that title if he had won re-election in 2020.
These concerns extend outside the presidency as well: the current session of Congress is the oldest on average of any Congress in recent history, and the median ages are fairly similar among Republicans and Democrats when separated by chambers.
There is also a higher percentage of federal lawmakers who are older than the median age. Nearly 1 out of every 4 members are over the age of 70.
What’s more, some of the people in the highest leadership positions are among the oldest members. Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.), is the oldest-ever House Speaker at 82, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) — the president pro tempore of the Senate and third person in line for the presidency — is the same age, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is 80.
As a result, it is unsurprising that a recent Insider/Morning Consult poll found that 3 in 4 Americans support an age max for members of Congress, and more than 40% say they view the ages of political leaders as a “major” problem.
Those who support the regulations argue that age limits are standard practice in many industries, including for airplane pilots and the military, and thus should be imposed on those who have incredible amounts of power over the country.
However, setting age boundaries on Congress and the President would almost certainly necessitate changes to the Constitution, and because such a move would require federal lawmakers to curtail their own power, there is little political will.
See what others are saying: (The New York Times) (Business Insider) (NBC News)
Churches Protected Loophole in Abuse Reporting for 20 years, Report Finds
In some cases, Clergy members failed to report abuse among their congregation, but state laws protected them from that responsibility.
A Nationwide Campaign to Hide Abuse
More than 130 bills seeking to create or amend child sexual abuse reporting laws have been neutered or killed due to religious opposition over the past two decades, according to a review by the Associated Press.
Many states have laws requiring professionals such as physicians, teachers, and psychotherapists to report any information pertaining to alleged child sexual abuse to authorities. In 33 states, however, clergy are exempt from those requirements if they deem the information privileged.
All of the reform bills reviewed either targeted this loophole and failed or amended the mandatory reporting statute without touching the loophole.
“The Roman Catholic Church has used its well-funded lobbying infrastructure and deep influence among lawmakers in some states to protect the privilege,” the AP stated. “Influential members of the Mormon church and Jehovah’s witnesses have also worked in statehouses and courts to preserve it in areas where their membership is high.”
“This loophole has resulted in an unknown number of predators being allowed to continue abusing children for years despite having confessed the behavior to religious officials,” the report continued.
“They believe they’re on a divine mission that justifies keeping the name and the reputation of their institution pristine,” David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, told the outlet. “So the leadership has a strong disincentive to involve the authorities, police or child protection people.”
Abuses Go Unreported
Last month, another AP investigation discovered that a Mormon bishop acting under the direction of church leaders in Arizona failed to report a church member who had confessed to sexually abusing his five-year-old daughter.
Merrill Nelson, a church lawyer and Republican lawmaker in Utah, reportedly advised the bishop against making the report because of Arizona’s clergy loophole, effectively allowing the father to allegedly rape and abuse three of his children for years.
Democratic State Sen. Victoria Steele proposed three bills in response to the case to close the loophole but told the AP that key Mormon legislators thwarted her efforts.
In Montana, a woman who was abused by a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses won a $35 million jury verdict against the church because it failed to report her abuse, but in 2020 the state supreme court reversed the judgment, citing the state’s reporting exemption for clergy.
In 2013, a former Idaho police officer turned himself in for abusing children after having told 15 members of the Mormon church, but prosecutors declined to charge the institution for not reporting him because it was protected under the clergy loophole.
The Mormon church said in a written statement to the AP that a member who confesses child sex abuse “has come seeking an opportunity to reconcile with God and to seek forgiveness for their actions. … That confession is considered sacred, and in most states, is regarded as a protected religious conversation owned by the confessor.”
See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Deseret) (Standard Examiner)
Texas AG Ken Paxton Allegedly Flees Official Serving Subpoenas in Truck
Following the news, a judge granted the attorney general’s request to quash the subpoenas.
Paxton on the Run
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton fled his own home in a truck Monday morning to evade an official trying to serve him a subpoena, according to an affidavit filed in federal court.
Last month, several nonprofits filed a lawsuit seeking to block Texas from charging individuals under the state’s abortion ban in cases that happened out of state or prior to Roe v. Wade being overturned.
Two subpoenas were issued summoning Paxton to a Tuesday court hearing, one for his professional title and the other addressed to him personally.
Early on Monday Ernesto Martin Herrera, a process server, knocked on the front door of Paxton’s home in McKinney and was greeted by Texas state senator Angela Paxton, who is the Attorney General’s wife.
According to the affidavit, Herrera identified himself and informed her that he was delivering court documents to Mr. Paxton. She responded that her husband was on the phone and in a hurry to leave, so Herrera returned to his vehicle and waited for Ken to emerge.
Nearly an hour later, the affidavit states, a black Chevrolet Tahoe pulled into the driveway, and 20 minutes after that, the attorney general stepped out.
“I walked up the driveway approaching Mr. Paxton and called him by his name,” Herrera wrote in the affidavit. “As soon as he saw me and heard me call his name out, he turned around and RAN back inside the house through the same door in the garage.”
Shortly afterward, Angela exited the house and climbed into a truck in the driveway, leaving a rear driver-side door open.
“A few minutes later I saw Mr. Paxton RAN from the door inside the garage towards the rear door behind the driver side,” Herrera wrote. “I approached the truck, and loudly called him by his name and stated that I had court documents for him.”
“Mr. Paxton ignored me and kept heading for the truck,” he continued.
The affidavit adds that Herrera placed the documents on the ground by the vehicle and stated that he was serving a subpoena, but the Paxtons drove away.
Process Server or Lingering Stranger?
Following the publication of the affidavit in The Texas Tribune, Ken attacked the news outlet on Twitter and claimed to fear for his safety.
“This is a ridiculous waste of time and the media should be ashamed of themselves,” he wrote. “All across the country, conservatives have faced threats to their safety – many threats that received scant coverage or condemnation from the mainstream media.”
“It’s clear that the media wants to drum up another controversy involving my work as Attorney General, so they’re attacking me for having the audacity to avoid a stranger lingering outside my home and showing concern about the safety and well-being of my family,” he continued.
On Monday, the attorney general filed two requests: a motion to quash the subpoena and another to seal the certificates of service, which included the affidavit.
His lawyers argued that Herrera “loitered at the Attorney General’s home for over an hour, repeatedly shouted at him, and accosted” him and his wife.
U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted both requests on Tuesday.
In a statement, the attorney general said that Herrera is “lucky this situation did not escalate further or necessitate force.”