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Steve Bannon’s ex-We Build the Wall cronies got heavy sentences: Here’s why he might be worried

Steve Bannon in handcuffs

Donald Trump’s former advisor Steve Bannon (C) is led away from a New York court in handcuffs on September 8, 2022. (Photo by ALEX KENT/AFP via Getty Images)

Two of Steve Bannon’s former associates at We Build the Wall received long sentences earlier this week. Federal prosecutors’ court filings that led to that heavy judgment revealed information that could concern the former Donald Trump strategist.

Before Trump pardoned him during the twilight of his presidency, Bannon appeared on the same indictment as three other We Build the Wall executives: Brian Kolfage, Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea.

Kolfage, a military veteran who served as the company’s president, received a 4-year prison sentence on Wednesday. Badolato, who was a friend and business associate of Bannon’s, received a three-year sentence that same day. Shea, the only defendant to go to trial, was convicted by a jury and is awaiting sentencing.

All three men were charged with conspiring to defraud donors in a supposed charity aimed at building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and laundering the loot. We Build the Wall had claimed that every penny collected would go toward the crowdfunding effort, but in sentencing filings, prosecutors were unequivocal: The men “stole” some of what they raised.

“Bannon, Badolato, and Shea weren’t mere conduits to Kolfage, they also stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from WBTW donors themselves,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing brief.

Trump’s pardon of Bannon cleared him of federal liability for those alleged crimes, but Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (D) brought similar charges against Bannon under the doctrine of separate sovereigns, which holds that one can be prosecuted in multiple jurisdictions without trampling on double-jeopardy protections.

Bannon’s charges remain pending in the state case, and he has pleaded not guilty.

“We then began investigating and determined that Mr. Bannon must be held accountable in this jurisdiction — the jurisdiction for his conduct, as the architect of this scheme, which impacted hundreds of Manhattan residents,” Bragg said after the indictment against Bannon was unsealed. “Because the simple truth is that it is a crime to profit off the backs of donors, by making false pretenses.”

Though recent developments in Manhattan Federal Court do not directly affect Bragg’s case, they provide a window into the evidence the government has against Bannon. Bragg, for example, has alleged that WeBuildTheWay, Inc. “obscured” illicit payments to Kolfage by “laundering them through third-party entities, including another non-profit corporation controlled by Bannon.”

Recent federal filings detail the mechanics of how that allegedly worked.

“Bannon and Badolato, for their parts, arranged to route money from WBTW to a separate non-profit that Bannon controlled, Citizens of the American Republic (‘COAR’), and then to Kolfage,” Kolfage’s sentencing filing states. “Kolfage never worked for COAR — Bannon’s entity was just an intermediary the defendants used to funnel money stolen from WBTW to Kolfage while concealing its original (fraudulent) source.”

Bragg’s state indictment accuses Bannon of money laundering, conspiracy and scheme to defraud, but it stops short of alleging theft. Federal prosecutors, however, explicitly go that extra distance.

“Just as Kolfage did, Bannon, Badolato, and Shea each spent the money they respectively stole from WBTW on personal expenses,” the brief states.

Former federal prosecutor Mitchell Epner noted that if Bannon is convicted, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan — who is presiding over his case and Trump’s — could (but isn’t required to) use erstwhile co-defendants’ sentences as a guide.

“With no prior felony convictions, Bannon would face a minimum of 1-3 years if convicted of Second Degree money laundering (which could be suspended) and a maximum of 5-15 years,” said Epner, a partner at Rottenberg Lipman Rich PC. “I would expect that the federal sentences make it less likely that Bannon would receive leniency if convicted.”

As for Bannon’s alleged theft from WeBuildTheWall, Inc. — now his accused co-conspirator in state court — Epner believed that affirmed the wisdom of the advice of a certain fictional lawyer and pop-cultural icon.

“As Saul Goodman said on ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Never commit a crime when you are committing a crime.’ He meant ‘Don’t do anything else to attract police attention beyond the baseline crime.’ It applies to Bannon, who apparently was stealing from his co-conspirators,” Epner said.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."