MANHATTAN (CN) — Pleading not guilty Monday at a virtual arraignment, three leaders of the embattled charity We Build the Wall followed the lead of fellow defendant Steve Bannon, the former White House chief strategist.
U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres set a trial date for May 24, 2021, warning the charity’s founder against potentially violating any pretrial publicity rules in inflammatory social media broadsides.
Along with Bannon, U.S. Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage, venture capitalist Andrew Badolato and Timothy Shea each face conspiracy counts that could carry a maximum 40-year sentence.
When launching its GoFundMe page on Dec. 17, 2018, Kolfage originally named his campaign “We the People Build the Wall,” proclaiming that donations would go entirely to constructing the barrier on the U.S. southern border. Prosecutors claim Kolfage instead lined his pockets with $350,000 and spent donors’ money lavishly on his Jupiter Marine yacht called the Warfighter, a Range Rover SUV, a golf cart, jewelry, cosmetic surgery, personal tax payments and his credit card debt.
The day after his arrest, Kolfage lashed out against his indictment on Facebook, adopting President Trump’s tactic of labeling his charges as a bid to take “political prisoners” and an “assault” on his donors’ freedom.
“They’ve targeted Trump’s inner circle — Flynn, Stone, Manafort, Cohen and now Bannon,” Kolfage wrote on Facebook on Aug. 21.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Alison Moe warned the judge that messages like these could taint a jury pool.
“In total, Kolfage has made at least a dozen extrajudicial statements about this case on his Facebook account, which has more than 630,000 followers and can be viewed by anyone who visits his page, between the time of his arrest and today,” Moe wrote in an Aug. 28 memo.
Judge Torres told Kolfage that she has the power to issue a gag order, and if necessary, she can “exercise that authority.”
Kolfage’s attorney Harvey Steinberg claimed in court that the government violated pretrial publicity rules by depicting his client as a fraudster in a press release.
“We take exception to the government’s conduct,” Steinberg said, likening prosecutors to a schoolyard bully who complains to the teacher when the weakest kid strikes back.
Prosecutors have not requested a gag order, and the judge has not yet exercised her power to investigate any possible violations of pretrial publicity rules.
A status conference has been set for the afternoon of Oct. 26.
With a first wave of “voluminous” discovery due on Sept. 29, prosecutors hope to extract emails and other files from phones, and they expect to know by the next hearing whether more time will be needed to defeat encryption.