The group has publicly told donors that its chairman and CEO, Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, will not be compensated for his efforts. But Bannon allegedly arranged to pay him by transferring money from We Build The Wall through a company he controlled. Kolfage previously pleaded guilty in the federal case. Only Bannon and company have been charged by the state.
Bannon pleaded not guilty on Thursday. If convicted on the count, he faces a maximum of 5 to 15 years in prison, according to Bragg.
“The simple truth is that it’s a crime to take advantage of donors’ backs by pretending,” Bragg said at the press conference. “We are here to say today with one voice that in Manhattan and New York, you will be held accountable for the donor scam.”
Speaking to reporters and passers-by outside the courthouse, Bannon suggested the case was politically motivated. Reporters peppered him with questions about the pardon, the guilty pleas of his alleged co-conspirators and his relationship with the former president – in turn, Bannon called the crowd “poor…in bondage” and urged them to check out his podcast.
His attorney did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan ordered Bannon to hand over his passports. Prosecutors argued he had the means and the disposition to flee, citing his recent, unrelated conviction for contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena related to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The judge also warned Bannon that if he voluntarily absented himself during court proceedings, they could move forward without him.
In 2020, federal prosecutors charged Bannon with pocketing some $1 million in donations, using them to repay hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own personal expenses. That year, federal agents arrested Bannon while he was aboard a luxury yacht off the coast of Connecticut. He pleaded not guilty, but was removed from the case after Trump delivered forgiveness in the twilight hours of his presidency.
Presidential pardons only apply to federal charges and cannot shield Bannon from state prosecution. Former Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance opened a state investigation that his successor, Bragg, continued when he took office last year.
At a press conference announcing the charges, New York Attorney General Tish James said Bannon’s presidential pardon had unfairly taken advantage of his political connections.
Kolfage and another federal co-accused pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy. Their sentencing scheduled for this week has been pushed back to December. A mistrial was declared in the trial of a third alleged co-conspirator when a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Bragg would not say whether Bannon’s alleged co-conspirators in the federal case were cooperating with the state prosecution.
Federal prosecutors previously said the group raised more than $25 million, but the state’s indictment on Thursday only referenced about $15 million. Likewise, the state did not allege that Bannon used donations to cover his personal expenses, as federal prosecutors did.
Bragg attributed the discrepancies to differences between state and federal jurisdiction, as well as the laws under which Bannon was charged. State investigators only looked at money raised through GoFundMe, where they could be certain donors saw a warning that no proceeds would go to Kolfage.
When asked if Bannon allegedly pocketed some of the money, James told reporters: ‘I think your inference is correct’, suggesting he did.
As Bannon arrived at the DA’s office on Thursday morning, some onlookers hurled insults at the far-right iconoclast, which repeatedly fueled controversy. In the past, Bannon has suggested that Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, be executed. He also echoed Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“Stop hurting America, you greasy crook,” a woman shouted as Bannon entered the building, his brief remarks drowned out by the heckling.