The New York attorney general is suing Donald Trump and his foundation, alleging the charity has engaged in “illegal conduct”.
Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced the lawsuit would be against the Donald J Trump Foundation, as well as its directors Mr Trump, and his three adult children: Sons Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump, and his daughter Ivanka Trump, who is a White House adviser.
The petition alleges “a pattern of persistent illegal conduct occurring over more than a decade.”
“As our investigation reveals, the Trump Foundation was little more than a chequebook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to non-profits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” Ms Underwood said in a statement. “This is not how private foundations should function and my office intends to hold the Foundation and its directors accountable for its misuse of charitable assets.”
Ms Underwood said she is seeking to dissolve the foundation and is also looking to bar President Trump from being the director of a New York not-for-profit enterprise for 10 years. A one-year ban would then also apply for each of the other board members who are Mr Trump’s children.
The attorney general said the foundation engaged in “extensive unlawful political coordination” with Mr Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, conducted “repeated and willful self-dealing” to benefit his personal and business interests, and violated “basic legal obligations” for non-profit organisations.
Mr Trump, soon after the lawsuit was filed, responded in a tweet suggesting that the investigation was a politically motivated attack on his charity and campaign, and suggested that former New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman — who resigned in May amid allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct — was afraid of bringing the case forward.
“The sleazy New York Democrats, and their now disgraced (and run out of town) A.G. Eric Schneiderman, are doing everything they can to sue me on a foundation that took in $18,800,000 and gave out to charity more money than it took in, $19,200,000. I won’t settle this case!” Mr Trump wrote in one tweet.
“Schneiderman, who ran the Clinton campaign in New York, never had the guts to bring this ridiculous case, which lingered in their office for almost 2 years. Now he resigned his office in disgrace, and his disciples brought it when we would not settle,” Mr Trump wrote in a follow-up tweet.
The lawsuit alleges that the charity raised money in a way designed to influence the 2016 election, and that senior leadership in the Trump campaign — including former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski — directed “timings, amounts, and recipients of grants by the Foundation to non-profits, as evidenced by communications between Campaign staff and Foundation representatives”.
Ms Underwood’s statement notes that Mr Trump had decided to skip the Iowa Republican debate on January 28, 2016, and instead held a nationally televised fundraiser, which Mr Trump and his campaign claimed at the time was raising money to benefit American veterans. Mr Trump did not immediately disclose which veterans groups received donations following the event, but he later disclosed donations to veterans groups totalling $5.6m when pressured by the media.
The press release detailing the lawsuit includes a copy of an email from Mr Lewandowski, sent on January 29 from his campaign email address, just days before the Iowa caucus, and at a time when the lawsuit alleges at least five $100,000 grants were made in Iowa.
“Is there any way we can make some disbursements this week while in Iowa? Specifically on Saturday,” Mr Lewandowski wrote in the email addressed to Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organisation.
Beyond the campaign, the lawsuit alleges that the foundation made at least five unlawful payments that benefited businesses of Mr Trump’s. Those include a $100,000 payment to settle claims against Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, a $158,000 payment to settle claims against the Trump National Golf Club in 2008, and a $10,000 charity auction purchase of a painting of Mr Trump that was later hung in Trump National Doral in Miami — which The Washington Post notably reported on during the campaign. After the attorney general investigation began, the statement says, Mr Trump’s foundation paid excise tax on at least three of those payments and that Mr Trump reimbursed costs for others.
The lawsuit was filed with the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan. The attorney’s general office said that they had referred the case to the IRS and the US Federal Election Commission as well.
In a statement, the Trump Organisation mirrored the president’s claims that the lawsuit is politically motivated.
“This is politics at its very worst. The Foundation has donated over $19 million to worthy charitable causes – more than it even received. The President himself – or through his companies – has contributed more than $8 million,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The reason the Foundation was able to donate more than it took in is because it had little to no expenses. This is unheard of for a charitable foundation.”
“The Foundation currently has $1.7 million remaining which the NYAG has been holding hostage for political gain,” the statement continues. “This is unconscionable – particularly because the Foundation previously announced its intention to dissolve more than a year and a half ago. The prior NYAG, who was recently forced to resign from office in disgrace, made it his stated mission to use this matter to not only advance his own political goals, but also for his own political fundraising. The acting NYAG’s recent statement that battling the White House is ‘the most important work [she] have ever done’ shows that such political attacks will continue unabated.”
A phone call to Mr Lewandowski’s lawyer — though Mr Lewandowski was not named in the lawsuit itself — was not immediately returned.