Lawyer: Steve Bannon-linked border wall nonprofit is defunct
NEW YORK (AP) — We Build the Wall, the nonprofit prosecutors say Steve Bannon worked with to dupe donors who gave money to build a wall on the U.S. southern border, is effectively out of business and can’t afford to defend itself in a New York fraud case, a lawyer for the organization said Tuesday.
Justin Weddle, seeking to be removed from the case, told a judge that the last member of We Build the Wall’s board is resigning and that the entity has racked up a “significant outstanding bill” for legal services and that he has “no prospect of getting paid.”
“Are you saying you’d like to withdraw because of the lack of resources or because you don’t have a client?” Judge Juan Manuel Merchan asked.
“Both,” Weddle responded.
Bannon and We Build the Wall are co-defendants in a state-level reboot of a federal case cut short in January 2021 by Bannon’s presidential pardon. They have pleaded not guilty to charges including money laundering, fraud and conspiracy.
Talk of We Build the Wall’s collapse upstaged Bannon in his first court appearance since being forced to find new lawyers after his old ones said they had “irreconcilable” differences about how to proceed.
Bannon, a conservative strategist and longtime ally of former President Donald Trump, has hired New York City lawyer Harlan Protass, and Joshua Kirshner, John Carman and Susan Scaring Carman, who are based on Long Island.
Separately, last week, a law firm that represented Bannon in previous legal matters sued him, alleging that he stiffed them out of more than $480,000 in legal fees.
Bannon’s legal line change will only prolong the case as his new lawyers get up to speed on what they said was 32 terabytes of digital evidence — equivalent to the storage on 32 of the biggest iPhones, or more than 2,000 Gmail accounts — that’s been turned over by the Manhattan district attorney’s office.
One of Bannon’s lawyers left court Tuesday holding a hard drive full of evidence that he said prosecutors gave him just before the hearing began.
“We’ve been on the case five days. We are digging in,” Protass said.
Assistant District Attorney Daniel Passeser said despite the defense’s eye-popping estimate, there were probably fewer terabytes of evidence that needed to be reviewed — and that the biggest files were ultra-high definition videos that take up a lot of space but don’t necessarily take a lot of time to watch.
Some of the prosecution’s evidence came from Manhattan federal prosecutors, whose efforts to put Bannon behind bars were upended by Trump’s pardon. Passeser said prosecutors ran into delays in receiving that material from the U.S. attorney’s office. State-level charges aren’t covered by presidential pardons.
Judge Juan Manuel Merchan, exasperated with the case’s growing calendar, scolded prosecutors for not providing evidence sooner but also blamed Bannon for squabbling with his previous set of lawyers and squandering the nearly six months that have passed since his arrest.
“Part of that is Mr. Bannon’s own doing because he couldn’t get along with his lawyers or they couldn’t get along with him,” Merchan said. “We can’t keep dragging this out.”
Nevertheless, Merchan pushed the next pretrial hearing until May 25, giving Bannon’s lawyers more time to review evidence.
Bannon is accused of falsely promising donors that all money given to We Build the Wall would go to building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, instead using the funds to enrich people involved in the project. Prosecutors say Bannon was involved in transferring hundreds of thousands of dollars to third-party entities and using them to funnel payments to two other people involved in the scheme.
The Manhattan indictment didn’t identify those people by name, but the details match those of Brian Kolfage and Andrew Badolato, who pleaded guilty to federal charges in April. A third defendant, Timothy Shea, was convicted in October.
Merchan delayed ruling on Weddle’s request to withdraw as We Build the Wall’s lawyer, instead scheduling a March 16 hearing on the matter so he could have time to research what he said was a complex issue.
Weddle said it was unlikely that another lawyer would step in to replace him. Merchan worried that “the defendant would disappear from the defense table” and said he’d never encountered a scenario in which a corporate defendant, as We Build the Wall is, wasn’t represented by a lawyer.
“Here we don’t even have a physical defendant,” Merchan said.
Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/.