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Pardon Control: Manhattan DA Issues Subpoenas Aimed at Steve Bannon’s Role in ‘We Build the Wall’ Scheme


NEW YORK, NY - AUGUST 20: Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon exits the Manhattan Federal Court on August 20, 2020 in the Manhattan borough of New York City. Bannon and three other defendants have been indicted for allegedly defrauding donors in a $25 million border wall fundraising campaign.

Steven Bannon was pardoned by outgoing president Donald Trump during the waning days of the 45th presidency. But New York County prosecutors reportedly have long had Bannon in their sights and appear to be making significant progress.

Citing anonymous sources said to be familiar with the matter, CNN reported Wednesday that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance recently subpoenaed records related to Bannon’s role in We Build the Wall, a non-profit group purporting to crowdsource a U.S.-Mexico border wall that federal prosecutors allege became a piggy bank for its leaders.

Before Trump pardoned away fraud and money laundering charges against him—but not those against his accused accomplices—Bannon had been awaiting trial on allegations that he pocketed $1 million from the initiative despite promising every penny of the $25 million raised would build the barrier.

Legal experts were sanguine about the prospects of Bannon’s case migrating to state court, right across the street.

“Bannon skirted the law once in this scam because Mr. Trump pardoned him,” national security attorney Bradley P. Moss told Law&Crime. “He won’t be so lucky if New York authorities are able to bring charges for violations of state law. No one is above the law. Not even Steve Bannon.”

Federal prosecutors had long taken a shine to Bannon’s border wall group. In August 2020, the former Breitbart executive chair and Trump 2016 campaign chief executive was indicted along with three others “for their roles in defrauding hundreds of thousands of donors in connection with [the] online crowdfunding campaign,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) press release.

“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,” then-acting U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss for the Southern District of New York said at the time. “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.”

In addition to a $350,000 slice of the donations, Kolfage bought a Jupiter Marine yacht called the Warfighter, a Range Rover SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, and cosmetic surgery, prosecutors say. Having received no 11th hour clemency from the former president, Kolfage is still awaiting trial along with the charity’s other officials Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.

Earlier this month, multiple media outlets reported that Vance and his staff began looking into Bannon’s potential legal culpability immediately after Trump’s parting gift to his onetime chief White House strategist.

CNN legal analyst Elie Honig predicted state prosecutors would likely make a run at Bannon after that highly-criticized bit of leniency.

“That’s a theft,” he said, describing the allegations against Bannon.

“It’s a crime in every state, including New York State,” he added. “So, if state prosecutors want to pick that case up, and they should. They can just walk right over to the SDNY, it’s a block a way, and ask for that file. They should do that, because it’s completely unjust that Steve Bannon gets a walk.”

Vance previously tried to prosecute Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort as a safeguard against a presidential pardon, an effort that failed after the state’s highest court ruled it a double-jeopardy violation.

New York passed S4572, a law aimed at closing the so-called “double jeopardy loophole.” The bill was signed into law in Oct. 2019, which was several months after Vance brought Manafort case.

Titled “Previous Prosecution: Presidential Reprieve, Pardon, or Other Form of Clemency,” the New York law permits prosecutors to bring charges against “a person [who] has been granted a reprieve, pardon or other form of clemency for an offense,” if authorities can show a potential defendant has a clear conflict of interest with the president. Examples of such conflicts include: a current or former staff member; a current or former political appointee; or a family member related to the president by blood or by marriage “within the sixth degree.”

Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, was charged in Aug. 2020. Unlike Manafort, Bannon was pardoned before he had been tried or convicted of any federal crimes.

[image via Stephanie Keith/Getty Images]

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