Bannon defiant after pleading not guilty to NY fraud charges

The charges relate to Steve Bannon's involvement in a group that privately funded border fencing in Texas and New Mexico. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK - Former White House strategist Steve Bannon vowed to fight a New York state case accusing him of defrauding thousands of contributors to a privately funded US-Mexico border wall of more than US$15 million (S$21 million).

Bannon pleaded not guilty Thursday to money-laundering, fraud and conspiracy charges after walking into a Lower Manhattan courtroom in handcuffs. He was released on his own recognisance after turning over his passport.

The charges relate to Bannon's involvement in We Build the Wall, a group that privately funded about 8km of border fencing in two locations in Texas and New Mexico.

Bannon was charged in August 2020 in a similar case by federal prosecutors, but he was pardoned by Mr Donald Trump on his last day as president. A presidential pardon only applies to federal rather than state crimes, though.

Appearing outside the courthouse after the Thursday arraignment, Bannon defiantly raised the earlier case, saying the "administrative state" was trying to "take him out" just before Election Day, like they had in 2020.

"I have news for them," he said. "I have not yet begun to fight."

We Build the Wall launched its initial GoFundMe campaign in 2018, saying it would help Mr Trump fulfil a signature 2016 campaign promise to build a border wall, though Mr Trump claimed that Mexico would pay for it.

In its solicitations, the group stressed that 100 per cent of the money donated would go toward construction, with its founders receiving no compensation.

In reality, Bannon "stole millions of dollars to line his own pocket", New York Attorney-General Letitia James said Thursday in a joint press conference with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.Their two offices are cooperating in the case.

"It is a crime to turn a profit by lying to donors, and in New York, you will be held accountable," Mr Bragg said in an earlier statement. "As alleged, Stephen

Bannon acted as the architect of a multi-million dollar scheme to defraud thousands of donors across the country, including hundreds of Manhattan residents."

"There cannot be one set of rules for everyday people and another for the wealthy and powerful. We all must play by the same rules and must obey the law," Ms James said in a statement released before the press conference.

Bannon was charged by federal prosecutors in 2020 of defrauding donors by claiming the group was run by volunteers, even as he allegedly took more than US$1 million from the fund in part to pay personal expenses.

Bannon is awaiting sentencing in another matter. A federal jury in Washington found him guilty in July of contempt of Congress for defying a subpoena from the House committee investigating the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol.

Outside the courthouse after the arraignment, Bannon, who now hosts a daily podcast, said he was leading a grassroots movement that would result in a landslide victory at all levels of state and local government in the November midterms.

"We are not going to back down, and they will not be able to shut me up," he said. BLOOMBERG

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