Dear Commons Community,
Barbara Underwood, the New York State attorney general, gave Donald Trump a birthday present yesterday and filed a lawsuit against him alleging that “Mr. Trump used [the Trump Foundation’s] charitable assets to pay off the legal obligations of entities he controlled, to promote Trump hotels, to purchase personal items, and to support his presidential election campaign…” For those of us in New York who have been hearing rumblings of this for at least two years, it is surprising that Ms. Underwood’s action has taken so long. Below is an excerpt from a New York Times editorial on the matter.
Happy Birthday, Mr. President!
Donald Trump’s Charity Begins, and Ends, at Home
The Editorial Board
June 14, 2018
It’s long been clear that Donald Trump’s family foundation, the Trump Foundation, is not a generous and ethical charity, but just another of his grifts. He branded it the way he brands his buildings, using his name to generate income that he then has used largely for his own benefit. In 2016, The Washington Post reported that many of Mr. Trump’s boasts about his charitable giving could not be verified. Those that could be were often gifts to himself.
For instance, the largest reported donation the foundation has made — $264,631 — was used to refurbish the fountain in front of Mr. Trump’s Plaza Hotel in New York. He has not given any of his own supposed fortune to the foundation since 2008, relying instead on the beneficence of others, whether pro-wrestling mavens or simply Americans who thought they were supporting, say, veterans. And yet the Trump Foundation was repeatedly compared with the Clinton Foundation, which, despite justifiable concern about Bill and Hillary Clinton’s dual roles as philanthropic boosters and politicians, is a credible charitable enterprise that focuses on global health and has saved perhaps millions of lives.
A lawsuit filed by the New York State attorney general, Barbara Underwood, on Thursday morning confirms many of these facts and adds a few new ones, alleging that “the Trump Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” Ms. Underwood said in a statement.
In precise and damning detail, the suit catalogs Mr. Trump’s repeated violation of both state and federal laws by tapping the foundation’s funds for his own personal purposes, including paying out legal settlements, making political contributions and purchasing a portrait of himself to hang in one of his golf clubs.
The Trump Foundation is “an empty shell,” the suit says, with no employees and no oversight by its board of directors, which has not met for nearly 20 years. This has allowed Mr. Trump to run it “according to his whim, rather than the law.”
A couple of examples: In 2013, the foundation gave $25,000 to “And Justice for All,” a political organization supporting the re-election of Florida’s attorney general, Pam Bondi. But on its federal tax form, the foundation claimed that it did not contribute money to any political campaign, and that it had donated $25,000 to a Kansas-based nonprofit, Justice for All, even though it had not. The foundation later attributed the false report to an accounting error.
Days before the 2016 Iowa caucuses, Mr. Trump held a fund-raiser on behalf of military veterans, raising about $5.6 million, half of which went directly to his foundation. The money was then managed not by philanthropists but by top Trump campaign staff members, who handed it out to veterans’ organizations across Iowa just before the caucus — converting the donations into illegal campaign contributions.
“This is not how private foundations should function,” said Ms. Underwood in her statement about the suit. That’s the understatement of the day.
Mr. Trump lashed out at the lawsuit on Twitter, attacking “sleazy New York Democrats” and, in particular, Eric Schneiderman, the former state attorney general who aggressively pursued Mr. Trump but who resigned last month following reports that he had physically abused several women. Unfortunately for Mr. Trump, the suit was brought by Mr. Schneiderman’s replacement, Ms. Underwood, who is not a politician but a career prosecutor with sterling credentials. Ms. Underwood’s office has asked the court to order the Trump Foundation to pay $2.8 million in restitution and to bar Mr. Trump from serving as a director, officer or trustee of any nonprofit for 10 years. The lawsuit also seeks to bar Mr. Trump’s three eldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric, from the boards of nonprofits based in New York or that operate in New York for one year.
That’s a start. But Ms. Underwood only has jurisdiction to file civil lawsuits in cases involving charities like the Trump Foundation. She cannot bring criminal charges against them for, say, violating campaign finance laws. So she also sent lengthy referral letters to the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission, detailing extensive conduct that could, and clearly should, trigger further investigation. In other words, Mr. Trump, who is already dealing with multiple federal inquiries into his campaign’s involvement with Russian efforts to swing the 2016 election as well as into possible crimes by his personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, may soon find himself in even deeper trouble.
Though they were fantasies in so many other ways, most of Donald Trump’s scams — from bankrupt casinos to phony universities — never really pretended to be in the public interest. But his foundation, like his presidency, does. And like everything else with the Trump name slapped on it, neither is remotely what it purports to be.