The group publicly told donors its president and CEO, Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, would not be compensated for his efforts. But Bannon allegedly arranged to pay him by moving money from We Build The Wall through a company he controlled. Kolfage previously pleaded guilty in the federal case. Only Bannon and the company were charged by the state.
Bannon pleaded not guilty Thursday. If convicted on the top charge, he faces a maximum 5 to 15 years in prison, according to Bragg.
“The simple truth is that it is a crime to profit off the backs of donors by making false pretenses,” Bragg said at the press conference. “We are here to say today in one voice that in Manhattan and in New York you will be held accountable for the defrauding of donors.”
Addressing reporters and bystanders outside the courthouse, Bannon suggested that the case was politically motivated. Reporters peppered him with questions about the pardon, his alleged co-conspirators’ guilty pleas and his relationship to the former president — in turn, Bannon called the crowd “paupers … in bondage” and urged them to check out his podcast.
His lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Acting Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan ordered Bannon to surrender his passports. Prosecutors argued he has the means and the disposition to flee, citing his recent, unrelated contempt of Congress conviction for defying a subpoena related to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
The judge also warned Bannon that if he is willfully absent during court proceedings, they could move forward without him.
In 2020, federal prosecutors accused Bannon of pocketing some $1 million in donations, using them to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars of his own personal expenses. That year, federal agents arrested Bannon on the charges while he was aboard a luxury yacht off the coast of Connecticut. He pleaded not guilty, but was dropped from the case after Trump issued the pardon in the twilight hours of his presidency.
Presidential pardons apply only to federal charges and cannot shield Bannon from a state prosecution. Former Manhattan DA 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 unfairly leveraged his political connections.
Kolfage and another federal co-defendant pleaded guilty to wire fraud conspiracy. Their sentencing scheduled for this week was pushed back to December. A mistrial was declared in a third alleged co-conspirator’s trial when a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict.
Bragg wouldn’t say whether Bannon’s alleged co-conspirators in the federal case were cooperating in the state’s prosecution.
Federal prosecutors previously said the group raised over $25 million, but the state’s indictment Thursday only referred to about $15 million. Likewise, the state did not allege Bannon used donations to cover personal expenses, as federal prosecutors had.
Bragg chalked the discrepancies up to the differences between state and federal jurisdiction, as well as the laws Bannon was being charged under. State investigators only looked at money raised through GoFundMe, where they could be certain donors saw a disclaimer that no proceeds would go to Kolfage.
When pressed whether Bannon allegedly pocketed any of the money, James told reporters, “I think your inference is correct,” suggesting he had.
As Bannon arrived at the DA’s office Thursday morning, some onlookers lobbed insults at the far-right iconoclast, who has stoked controversy at frequent turns. In the past, Bannon has suggested Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, should be executed. He has also echoed Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
“Stop hurting America, you greasy grifter,” one woman yelled as Bannon entered the building, his brief remarks drowned out by the heckling.