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Stephen Bannon indicted as part of alleged border-wall scheme

It was easy to imagine Stephen Bannon running into trouble with the law. But who imagined he'd be indicted for an alleged wall-building scam?
Image: Steve Bannon speaks with Richard Engel near St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.
Steve Bannon speaks with Richard Engel near St. Peter's Square at the Vatican.NBC News

It was easy to imagine Stephen Bannon, who played a prominent role on Donald Trump's campaign and as part of his early White House team, eventually running into trouble with the law. But I didn't expect him to be indicted for this.

Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against one-time presidential aide Steve Bannon and three others for allegedly taking money donated to help build a wall along the southern border, authorities said Thursday. Bannon, Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea "and others orchestrated a scheme to defraud hundreds of thousands of donors," according to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York.

Some context is in order. We Build the Wall was ostensibly created to supplement the White House's efforts to construct giant barriers along the U.S./Mexico border. While the administration used taxpayer money, raided from the Pentagon budget, to construct fencing, We Build the Wall would raise private funds from donors in pursuit of the same goal.

As a high-profile political player, Steve Bannon's role as a board member of the outfit lent it credibility. It wasn't long before We Build the Wall raised $25 million for the private venture.

But as ProPublica and The Texas Tribune reported last month, the group's efforts haven't gone well: structural issues have raised concerns that the conservative outfit is delivering a defective product. Indeed, the whole endeavor became so problematic that Donald Trump recently tried to distance himself from the group and its project.

The president was, by all appearances, brazenly lying. The Texas Tribune reported last month, Trump "now claims this privately funded border wall in the Rio Grande Valley ... was built to 'make me look bad,' even though the project's builder and funders are all Trump supporters."

As of this morning, however, the controversy is vastly more serious.

In terms of the legal jeopardy, Brian Kolfage, one of the group's principal leaders, allegedly told prospective donors that all of the money raised for the project would go toward border barriers and he wouldn't personally benefit. Similarly, Bannon told the public that We Build The Wall would function as "a volunteer organization."

Federal prosecutors alleged this morning, however, "As alleged, the defendants 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. While repeatedly assuring donors that Brian Kolfage, the founder and public face of We Build the Wall, would not be paid a cent, the defendants secretly schemed to pass hundreds of thousands of dollars to Kolfage, which he used to fund his lavish lifestyle."

A federal investigator added, "The defendants allegedly engaged in fraud when they misrepresented the true use of donated funds. As alleged, not only did they lie to donors, they schemed to hide their misappropriation of funds by creating sham invoices and accounts to launder donations and cover up their crimes, showing no regard for the law or the truth. This case should serve as a warning to other fraudsters that no one is above the law, not even a disabled war veteran or a millionaire political strategist."

There's no word yet on whether -- and when -- Attorney General Bill Barr may intervene in the case to protect the president's political allies.

Update: To provide some additional context on We Build The Wall's connections to far-right politics, the group's website highlights other prominent members of its team, including Kansas' Kris Kobach as the organization's general counsel. We Build The Wall's advisory board also includes Erik Prince, Tom Tancredo, Curt Schilling, and "Sheriff" David Clarke Jr.