Those in Donald Trump’s orbit appear to be nervous about the swirling scandal around the Trump Foundation—and they should be: The stakes are incredibly high.
The allegations of a quid pro quo between Trump and Florida Attorney General, improper use of the charity for personal benefit, and employment of the charity for political purposes have serious penalties beyond mere campaign optics—the possible consequences range from hefty fines to jail time.
The last seven days has been all bad news on the Trump Foundation front: House Democrats have publicly sought a Justice Department investigation into the charity, while left-leaning watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington alleged that Trump appeared to have bribed Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi by giving her a $25,000 contribution so that she would not join a lawsuit against Trump University.
And a New York Times investigation this past week showed that Trump had personally signed the check that constituted the illegal campaign contribution from his charity to Bondi.
Add this to a dose of personal animosity: New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman told CNN this week that “we have been looking into the Trump Foundation to make sure it’s complying with the laws governing charities in New York.” The Trump camp already despises Schneiderman due to his legal crusade on the controversial Trump University business.
“This reaches above a distraction for them due to the legal implications of it and long litigation possibility,” a former senior aide to Trump said. “Look, Donald signed those checks… he’s on there. He’s liable.”
The Trump campaign appears spooked by these developments: An interview between Donald Trump Jr., who is listed as a director for the Trump Foundation, and a Pennsylvania TV station was abruptly cut off after he was asked about the charity.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Trump Jr. said.
There are a number of serious allegations against the Trump Foundation, including his use of the charity to further his campaign by handing out Trump Foundation checks to veterans’ charities at campaign rallies; and accusations of self-dealing, such as using the charity’s funds to buy a $20,000, 6-foot-tall portrait of himself.
But the most damaging allegation (at least so far) surrounds an illegal $25,000 contribution that the Trump Foundation provided to a political action committee linked to Bondi.
On Sept. 13, 2013, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Bondi’s office was reviewing the legal action initiated by the state of New York against Trump University to see if Florida should join the case. Four days later, on Sept. 17. 2013, the Trump Foundation made a $25,000 contribution to a political committee associated with Bondi. Trump would also hold an extravagant fundraiser for Bondi six months later.
Soon after the $25,000 contribution to a Bondi-linked PAC, the attorney general decided not to pursue legal action against the controversial Trump University, which many participants have likened to a scam.
Bondi’s office has acknowledged that the attorney general personally solicited a political contribution from Trump in the week surrounding her office’s internal deliberations over whether to join the Trump University lawsuit.
A New York Times investigation partly undercut the timeline by showing that the check from Trump had been signed four days before the Orlando Sentinel article appeared. But, the article continues, the check’s date does not rule out that Trump was trying to influence Bondi—the businessman has frequently bragged that he made campaign contributions to politicians in order to curry favor and gain an edge in business dealings.
Trump has already paid the IRS a $2,500 penalty this year for violating tax laws by giving a political contribution to Bondi’s PAC through his charity. The Trump Foundation had not listed the political donation in records filed to the IRS. Instead, it listed a donation to a Kansas charity with a similar-sounding name. Trump’s organization said that this had been an innocent mistake.
“This was simply a clerical error as has been widely reported. Mr. Trump voluntarily took corrective action, consistent with IRS procedures. He caused the Foundation to immediately file a Form 4720 and reimbursed the Foundation for the $25,000 payment and paid the full $2,500 excise tax due,” said Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign.
That the Trump Campaign is engaging on this issue at all can be interpreted as a sign that they take the allegations very seriously. This Daily Beast reporter has reached out to Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks nearly two dozen times this calendar year on varying topics, and has received no response on any issue—even issues that may reflect well on Trump—except twice this week on the relationship between the Trump Foundation and Pam Bondi.
Hicks also recommended an article from LawNewz.com, a blog run by legal commentator Dan Abrams. The blog post is titled, “Sorry Democrats, New Docs Pretty Much Collapse Entire Trump/Bondi (Non) ‘Bribery Scandal.’”
“Over the years, Mr. Trump has made many contributions to politicians, but never quid pro quo,” Hicks added.
But not everyone is ready to drop the issue quite yet, least of all CREW, the left-leaning watchdog group, which has been leading the charge to investigate the Trump charity’s contribution to Bondi and has alleged that bribery apparently occurred.
“These are serious potential violations of the law. In the worst-case scenario for Trump and the Foundation, the IRS could take away the Foundation’s non-profit status—effectively ending it—and charge tax penalties for the political and private benefit of its actions for Trump. Trump and Bondi could face federal felony charges from the Department of Justice, the highest charges carrying up to 10 years in prison,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for CREW, which filed a bribery complaint to the Justice Department last week.
Willfully making false statements on a tax return is punishable by up to five years in prison, while bribery carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison. Charging Trump or other individuals with criminal activity is the most extreme scenario, but one with an obviously catastrophic result. It could take years of legal action, and the Justice Department and IRS have not yet shown any willingness to take these steps.
“[The Justice Department] is hesitant to press bribery charges without concrete evidence of a quid pro quo, such as provided by a sting operation. The timing of a campaign contribution and Bondi’s decision not to investigate the charity is usually considered insufficient evidence,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the left-leaning consumer rights group Public Citizen. “Nevertheless, the timing is bolstered by Trump’s own words that he often uses money to buy political favors from politicians. Trump not only brags about corruption, in this case, he appears to show us how it is done.”
But another entity that is empowered to act is the New York state attorney general’s office. If the feds don’t pursue further penalties against Trump’s charity and those associated with it, it’s possible that Attorney General Schneiderman’s office may do so.
The New York Attorney General’s Charities Bureau is currently undertaking an investigation into the Trump Foundation, and has reportedly been corresponding with the Trump Foundation since June. The Trump campaign has shot back by calling Schneiderman a “partisan hack” and pointing out that he has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.
“They’re going to be absolutely furious that Schneiderman has opened up the investigation. He’s not public enemy number one, but he’s not well liked in the Trump orbit. They’re thinking he’s using the office for political purposes,” said a former senior aide to Trump. “He’ll litigate this to the end with Schneiderman. He’s not going to give an inch.”
The charity bureau’s investigative tools include the power to subpoena bank records, financial files, communications and individuals for interview, an official with the bureau explained, and its tools for punishing violations of rules include dissolving the charity, forcing reforms at the foundation, or in the most serious, rare cases, can charge individuals with filing false records, a misdemeanor that carries up to a year in jail.
“The NY AG may force governance changes and may well seek to remove Trump and his family members from the board or require a majority of independent board members. The AG may also uncover other issues,” said Marcus Owens, a lawyer who once served as the director of the IRS’ Exempt Organizations Divisions, which oversees the nation’s charities and foundations.
Ultimately, even if criminal charges are not brought, the Trump Foundation has become something of a case study—on how not to run a charity.
“The charges are very serious. This is a real abuse of philanthropy for personal and political gain,” said Aaron Dorfman, the president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy. “And that’s not what a private foundation is supposed to be for.”