DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump's former political adviser Steve Bannon pled not guilty yesterday to criminal fraud and money laundering charges. He was indicted on charges that he and other conservative activists scammed donors out of money they gave to help build the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Here's NPR's Brian Mann.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Federal prosecutors alleged the illegal scheme began in late 2018. Using the GoFundMe platform, Steve Bannon, conservative activist Brian Kolfage and others convinced donors to give more than $25 million.
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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Live on the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, it's the We Build The Wall Wall-A-Thone - because every mile matters.
MANN: At first, Bannon and Kolfage told supporters the cash would be donated to the federal government to help build the official border wall. Later, the group promised to build private sections of wall on private land. Videos posted by We Build The Wall portrayed the project as a grassroots effort, with families rallying to fulfill President Trump's vision. At one event, a mom held up her little boy.
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UNIDENTIFIED MOTHER: And he said, I want to help the president raise money. And he's raised - you want to tell them?
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Twenty-five thousand dollars.
MANN: The organization promised to spend every penny donated building the wall with an all-volunteer staff, no money for salaries or compensation. But from the outset, the project's structure and apparent lack of financial safeguards raised eyebrows. Wendy Tien, who lives in Minnesota, sent a letter last year to officials in Florida, where Build The Wall is headquartered, warning the organization seemed to be misrepresenting itself to donors.
WENDY TIEN: In particularly, I just wanted to make sure the public was protected.
MANN: Florida officials say they opened an investigation then passed the case to federal authorities. Yesterday, the U.S. attorney in New York unveiled indictments against four men, including Bannon and Kolfage, accusing them of wire fraud and money laundering. Investigators say the men used fake invoices and other schemes to divert more than $1.3 million, much of it going to pay for their personal expenses. Allen Oldie (ph) and Lorraine Hoyt (ph) are two of the donors who gave to the project. Both say they believe in the cause.
LORRAINE HOYT: Because I'd like to have security at our borders.
ALLEN OLDIE: Well, I think we've got to do something down at the border. I mean, from everything that I see on TV, I guess, and what I read, there's a lot of places that are porous. And this would help the border patrol, from what I understand, to limit the access of illegals coming across.
MANN: Hoyt, who lives near the border in New Mexico, says she hopes these allegations aren't true.
HOYT: It won't make me very happy. I'd be kind of disheartened by that.
MANN: Oldie, who lives in Kansas, says it's especially painful the allegations involve prominent conservative activists and organizers.
OLDIE: It's disturbing. I mean, they take the goodwill and faith of the American people that want to support to better their country, and they abuse it. To me, it's no worse than a crooked politician. And we have plenty of those in Washington, D.C.
MANN: Speaking yesterday, President Trump said he hadn't worked with his former aide Steve Bannon for some time. Meanwhile, a spokesman for the website GoFundMe, which helped raise money for We Build The Wall, says roughly $6 million have already been returned to donors.
Brian Mann, NPR News.
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