NEW YORK (AP) — A lawyer for a Colorado man accused of cheating donors to a $25 million fund to build a wall along the southern U.S. border told jurors on Tuesday that they should question why his client’s fraud trial is being held in New York, tapping into a theme that may have contributed to an earlier trial ending with a deadlocked jury.
During his opening statement, attorney John Meringolo, defending Timothy Shea, also spoke dismissively of Steve Bannon, the former top adviser to then-President Donald Trump who was charged in the case before Trump pardoned him as he left office last year.
“Is there a venue in this case?” Meringolo asked Manhattan federal court jurors as he told them to pay attention to where trial witnesses are from and where events described in the indictment occurred. He suggested that an adverse determination on venue might be enough to acquit his client.
Meringolo hit notes that were likely to appeal to any jurors who might think along the lines of a juror at Shea’s first trial in the spring who so upset his fellow jurors that they wrote a note to the judge saying he had branded them all as liberals and complained that the trial should have occurred in a southern state.
Days later, the hopelessly deadlocked jury caused a mistrial.
Last month, Judge Analisa Torres rejected Shea’s request to move the trial to Colorado because of “political polarization” in New York and pretrial publicity. The judge wrote that the Castle Rock, Colorado, man had failed to show why “political polarization” would be less in his home state or anywhere else.
Shea, who owns an energy drink company, Winning Energy, sat with his hands folded during opening statements. His company’s cans have featured a cartoon superhero image of Trump and claim to contain “12 oz. of liberal tears.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Derek Wikstrom said during his opening that hundreds of thousands of people nationwide made donations, many of them small, in response to the online “We Build The Wall” fundraiser that went viral.
The prosecutor pointed at the defendant as he said: “This man, Timothy Shea, used the money to line his own pockets.”
Wikstrom said Shea helped himself and others steal hundreds of thousands of dollars even though the fundraiser promised that “not one cent” of the money would go to salaries for the campaign’s organizers because all of it was going toward the wall. Only a few miles (kilometers) of wall were built.
“This case is not about whether you think there should be a wall,” he said. “Whether you are for or against a border wall, no one should be a victim of a fraud.”
Wikstrom’s stick-to-the-facts approach was followed by Meringolo, who portrayed the fundraising quest in patriotic terms, saying organizers wanted to give the money to Trump but the government said it could not accept privately raised money.
He described Shea’s onetime codefendant and business partner in the fundraiser, Brian Kolfage, as “a veteran and a hero.”
“The guy has no legs and no arm,” Meringolo said of the triple amputee.
Shea is the only one of the three people who were charged in the case to stand trial. Kolfage pleaded guilty to charges and Bannon was pardoned before he stood trial on federal charges.
Meringolo told jurors that any money Shea received was earned through his work to secure land, meet with homeowners along the border and engage with others through social media, along with expenses for security for the project.
He said there was “no evidence Bannon did security work.”
Bannon, 68, last month pleaded not guilty to New York state charges alleging that he cheated investors to the “We Build The Wall” campaign. Presidential pardons apply only to federal crimes.