Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and three others have been charged with fraud connected to a “We Build the Wall’ fundraising campaign they led. Bannon speaking at the Conversative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland in 2017. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

The U.S Justice Department on Thursday morning charged former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and three other men with fraud in connection to a “We Build the Wall” fundraising campaign that originated on GoFundMe in late 2018.

Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist, was arrested Thursday in connection to the fraud case, which accuses the campaign organizers of diverting donated funds to themselves. Bannon himself is accused of taking more than $1 million from the more than $25 million raised through a nonprofit he controlled, The Washington Post reports.

The campaign was fueled by president Donald Trump’s rhetoric on building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a project that many experts deemed unfeasible as far back as 2016. For Latinos in the U.S., the proposed wall has also come to represent a symbol of racial divides and hatred toward immigrants from Latin America. According to Gallup polling, a solid majority of Americans, about 60%, oppose new construction of a border wall.

Since the GoFundMe campaign fell short of its $1 billion goal, the crowd funding website refunded $20 million to donors. But the organizer of that campaign, Brian Kolfage pressed on, forming “We Build the Wall, Inc.”. In a press release, Kolfage, an Iraq War veteran, stated, “I personally will not take a penny of compensation from these donations incurred in the furtherance of this mission.” Kolfage was one of the four charged with fraud on Thursday. In addition to his military background, Kolfage also had a history of spearheading a right-wing website that pushed conspiracy theories and political misinformation, according to reports

Construction of parts of this privately funded border wall were continuing in Texas late last year, despite orders from a district judge to stop. On the federal side, only five new miles of southern border wall have been built to date despite billions of dollars being allocated to the project, according to government documents. 

On Thursday, Trump appeared to be distancing himself from the campaign. He told White House reporters that he didn’t “know anything about the project at all” and didn’t like it because it was “being done for showboating reasons,” Wall Street Journal White House correspondent Rebecca Ballhaus reported.

Bannon is also the former executive director of the right-wing website Breitbart News. Bannon and the three others indicted each face one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering. Each charge carries a potential 20-year prison sentence. 

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Omar L. Gallaga is a freelance journalist living in Central Texas who has written for NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone, Engadget, Hispanic Magazine, CNN, MSNBC, and The Washington Post. He was a longtime technology and culture writer at The Austin American-Statesman, where he helped launch the newspaper ¡ahora sí! and two podcasts.