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Steve Bannon Pleads Not Guilty to Fraud and Money Laundering Charges in Alleged Border Wall Scheme

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  • 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.

Indictment Unsealed

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)

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Former Aide Accuses New York Governor Andrew Cuomo of Sexual Harassment

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  • New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) was accused of sexual harassment by his former aide Lindsey Boylan in an essay she published on Medium Wednesday.
  • Boylan claimed she was subjected to inappropriate remarks and behavior from the governor for years, including an instance in 2018 where he allegedly kissed her without her consent after a meeting.
  • Boylan said Cuomo created an administration, “where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected.”
  • Cuomo denied the allegations, but Boylan’s essay comes as numerous current and former top officials have recently accused the governor of engaging in intimidation and creating a hostile work environment.

Lindsey Boylan Details Allegations Against Cuomo

A former aide to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) published an essay Wednesday accusing him of sexual harassment, expanding on allegations she made in December. The aide, Lindsey Boylan, first made the accusations in a Twitter thread about women being harassed in the workplace.

“Yes, @NYGovCuomo sexually harassed me for years,” she wrote. “Many saw it, and watched.” 

At the time, Boylan did not provide any more details to the media, and Cuomo denied the allegations.

“I fought for and I believe a woman has the right to come forward and express her opinion and express issues and concerns that she has,” he said at a press conference after the accusations surfaced. “But it’s just not true.”

In her essay, published on Medium, Boylan accused Cuomo of subjecting her to several years of deeply uncomfortable situations, including an instance after a meeting in 2018 when he kissed her on the lips without her consent.

She claimed that Cuomo “would go out of his way to touch me on my lower back, arms and legs” and that over the years, “His inappropriate gestures became more frequent.”

These alleged actions also included one time in October 2017, where she said he sat across from her on a jet and said “Let’s play strip poker.” Boylan outlined a number of other inappropriate actions and comments she claimed the governor made. She even embedded screenshots from emails and text messages that she said supported her story. However, she said her fears got worse after the kiss in 2018, and that she “came to work nauseous every day” until she eventually resigned in September of that year.

Notably, Boyland additionally stated that Cuomo’s “pervasive harassment” extended to other women as well, and that he would make “unflattering comments about the weight of female colleagues” and “ridiculed” them about their romantic relationships.

This kind of behavior, she said, was part of the culture Cuomo created in his administration, “where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected.”

He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences,” she said, stating that after she first tweeted the accusation in December, two other women reached out to her but were too afraid to speak.

One allegedly told Boylan she lived in fear of what would happen if she rejected Cuomo’s advances, and the other said he had instructed her to warn people who upset him that they risk losing their jobs.

Cuomo’s Response

Cuomo’s press secretary Caitlin Girouard responded to the allegations in a statement Wednesday by reiterating the governor’s past remarks.

“As we said before, Ms. Boylan’s claims of inappropriate behavior are quite simply false,” she told reporters.

Girouard also disputed Boylan’s story about the jet ride, sharing a statement from four current and former administration officials who were on one or more of the four flights in October 2017 that Boylan had taken with Cuomo.

“We were on each of these October flights and this conversation did not happen,” the four officials said.

Other Allegations

Boylan is by no means alone in some of her specific accusations. Cuomo’s last few weeks have been mired in scandal after a top aide revealed his administration had withheld nursing home data on COVID-related deaths. In the aftermath of the revelations and Cuomo’s handling of it, numerous top officials have accused the governor of intimidation, bullying, and fostering a toxic workplace.

Many of those accusations surfaced after New York Assemblyman Ron Kim (D), who has been an outspoken critic of Cuomo, claimed that the governor threatened to “destroy” him on a call last week.

Cuomo said Kim was lying about the conversation, but shortly after, many current and former aides and other insiders gave The New York Times similar accounts of aggressive behavior and intimidation.

Also on Wednesday, Karen Hinton, another ex-Cuomo staffer, published an op-ed in the New York Daily News that echoed many of Boylan’s claims about a toxic work environment for women.

That claim also appeared to be supported up by three people who worked in the governor’s office at the same time as Boylan. They told The Times it was true that Cuomo would make inappropriate remarks and comment on people’s appearances. 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CBS News)

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Former Capitol Security Officials Blame Intelligence Failures for Insurrection

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  • During the Senate’s first hearing into security failures that lead to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, top officials provided new insights but shirked responsibility.
  • Many blamed the FBI for not gathering more information or properly communicating what they did know, arguing that the breakdown was a result of the intelligence community not taking domestic extremism seriously.
  • Police leaders noted that a bulletin from an FBI field office warning of a “war” at the Capitol, issued a day before the insurrection, was not properly flagged or delivered.
  • However, others noted that the Capitol Police had in fact issued an internal alert three days before warning of similar threats.

Security Officials Shirk Responsibility

Former top officials responsible for security at the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 insurrection testified before the Senate for the first time Tuesday.

While the testimonies represented the most detailed accounts of the security failures leading up to and during attacks, they also raised questions about how those failures came out.

The top officials did acknowledge some of their own mistakes and admitted they were unprepared for such an event. Still, they largely deflected responsibility for the breakdown in communication and instead blamed intelligence officials, their subordinates, and even each other at times.

All of the officials testified that the FBI and the intelligence community had failed to detect information about the intentions of the pro-Trump insurrectionists and properly relay what they did know before the attack.

Former Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund and acting D.C. Police Chief Robert Contee depicted the collapse in communication as a broader failure of U.S. intelligence agencies to take domestic extremism as seriously as foreign threats.

Specifically, both officials mentioned this in the context of a bulletin issued a day before the insurrection by the FBI’s office in Norfolk, Virginia. That bulletin warned of a “war” at the Capitol on Jan.  6.

In his testimony, Sund — who resigned the day after the insurrection — disclosed for the first time that the alter had in fact been sent to the Capitol Police through the Joint Terrorism Task Force but said it was never forwarded to him or either of the House and Senate sergeants-at-arms.

Contee also said the D.C. police department received the warning, but it was a nondescript email and not labeled as a priority alert that would demand immediate attention.

“I would certainly think that something as violent as an insurrection at the Capitol would warrant a phone call or something,” he told the Senators.

Contradictory Information

However, lawmakers pointed out that the Capitol Police did have warnings about the attack in the form of their own internal intelligence report issued three days before the planned pro-Trump rally that preceded the storming of the Capitol.

In that 12-page memo, some of which was obtained by The Washington Post, the Capitol Police intelligence unit warned that “Congress itself” could be targeted by Trump supporters who believed the electoral college certification was “the last opportunity to overturn the results of the presidential election.”

The memo also noted the large expected crowds, the fact that organizers had urged Trump supporters to bring guns and combat gear, and that “President Trump himself” had been promoting the chaos.

Two people familiar with the memo told The Post that the report had been relayed to all Capitol Police command staff, though in their testimonies Tuesday, the former security officials said the intel they had did not have enough specifics about the potential for an attack.

Some, however, appear to doubt the series of events detailed by Sund. On Tuesday, Buzzfeed filed a lawsuit against the Capitol Police for records related to the insurrection. The agency has been criticized for not providing enough information to the media, and contradictory testimonies delivered to Senators likely raised more red flags.

Lawmakers Emphasize Need for Better Precautions 

The argument that there was so much vague, threatening online chatter making it hard to distinguish what was legitimate is something that many law enforcement officials have used to explain their failure to prepare for the attacks.

In fact, that was the exact same response the FBI gave reporters Tuesday after Sund and Contee blamed them for not giving an explicit or strong enough warning. Lawmakers hope that the many hearings and ongoing investigations into the matter will result in tangible policy changes to prevent similar attacks from happening again.

While it is currently unclear what that will look like, many leaders have emphasized the need for a broad rethinking of how the U.S. addresses domestic extremist threats at every level.

“There’s no question in my mind that there was a failure to take this threat more seriously, despite widespread social media content and public reporting that indicated violence was extremely likely,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mi.) told reporters Tuesday. 

“The federal government must start taking these online threats seriously to ensure they don’t cross into the real-world violence.” 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (The Associated Press)

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Illinois Rep. Files Bill To Ban Video Games Like “Grand Theft Auto” Amid Carjacking Spikes

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  • Illinois State Rep. Marcus Evans (D) has proposed a bill that would crack down on certain video games in hopes of reducing a dramatic uptick in Chicago carjackings.
  • Illinois law currently bans people from selling “violent video games” to minors; however, Evans’ bill seeks to ban the sale of “violent video games” to anyone in the state. 
  • Among other language, Evans is seeking to expand the state definition of “serious physical harm” related to video games so that it includes “motor vehicle theft with a driver or passenger present inside the vehicle when the theft begins.”
  • A number of gamers have criticized the bill, calling it a misguided approach for reducing violence in the state. 

“Grand Theft Auto” Bill

Illinois State Representative Marcus Evans (D) has filed a bill that, if passed, would ban the sale of violent video games to anyone in the state.

While the bill does address the frequent debate around whether gun violence in video games inspires real-world violence, Evans is actually filing the bill primarily in response to a series of carjackings in Chicago. In fact, the bill was largely conceived with the game “Grand Theft Auto” in mind.

“‘Grand Theft Auto’ and other violent video games are getting in the minds of our young people and perpetuating the normalcy of carjacking,” Evans said. “Carjacking is not normal and carjacking must stop.” 

According to the Chicago-Sun Times, Chicago saw 1,400 carjackings in 2020 — double that of what it saw in 2019. That’s now continued into this year, with 241 carjackings already reported in the city as of Monday. Earlier this week, police charged two boys, ages 13 and 14, with stealing a man’s car after holding him at gunpoint.

The latest addition to the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise was released in 2013. Notably, Chicago carjacking rates in 2013, 2014, and 2015 were the lowest of the previous decade.

Source: David Struett/Sun-Times

The bill Evans has filed would amend a current Illinois law that restricts the sale of “violent video games” to minors. 

As part of his amendment to include all age groups, Evans wants to update the definition of “violent video game” under state law to include games that “perpetuate human-on-human violence in which the player kills or otherwise causes serious physical or psychological harm to another human or an animal.”

Evans also wants to update the definition of “serious physical harm” related to video games so that it would include “psychological harm and child abuse, sexual abuse, animal abuse, domestic violence, violence against women, or motor vehicle theft with a driver or passenger present inside the vehicle when the theft begins.”

Gamers Say Evans’ Argument Is Misplaced

Among gamers, Evans’ bill has reignited conversations around video games and violence.

“Carjackings have happened before games and Marcus Evans thinks today that it’s the fault of video games like GTA?” one person tweeted. “I never had any need for committing crimes playing games my whole life.”

See what others are saying: (The Hill) (Fox 32 Chicago) (NME)

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