New York’s attorney general announced a lawsuit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation on Thursday, alleging a “pattern of persistent illegal conduct” at the charity, designed to benefit the president’s private business interests and boost his 2016 campaign.
Trump paid off legal obligations, promoted his hotels and purchased personal items with foundation funds, according to attorney general Barbara D. Underwood—activities which could violate laws against self-dealing. Underwood claims the foundation made a $100,000 payment to settle legal claims against Mar-a-Lago, paid $158,000 to settle claims stemming from a dispute over hole-in-one tournament at a Trump golf course and even paid $10,000 to purchase a painting of Mr. Trump that adorned the walls of Trump’s Doral resort.
The state launched its investigation following reports in the Washington Post that Trump was using his private foundation for personal gain.
Underwood also alleges that Trump used to the foundation to benefit his presidential campaign. The charity “raised in excess of $2.8 million in a manner designed to influence the 2016 presidential election at the direction and under the control of senior leadership of the Trump presidential campaign,” according to a press release accompanying the lawsuit.
Trump skipped a presidential primary debate in January 2016, opting instead to hold a nationally televised fundraiser that blurred the line between Trump’s foundation and the Trump campaign. The foundation even allowed campaign staff to dictate “the timing, amounts and recipients of grants by the foundation to non-profits” based on political condsiderations, including at least five $100,000 grants made to groups in Iowa in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses.
“As our investigation reveals, 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,” Underwood said in a written 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.”
The suit—which lists Trump plus his three eldest children, Donald Jr., Eric and Ivanka, as defendants—seeks to dissolve the foundation and distribute its remaining assets to other charities. Underwood also asked the court to force Trump to pay at least $2.8 million in restitution, plus additional penalties, and ban Trump from serving as the director of a New York not-for-profit organization for ten years. Underwood asked for similar one-year bans for the younger Trumps, who served on the foundation’s board of directors.
Filed on the president’s birthday, the lawsuit drew immediate criticism from the commander-in-chief. “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,” Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. “I won’t settle this case!”
Underwood became the state’s attorney general in May, following Schneiderman’s resignation amid multiple claims of sexual abuse. Underwood was not elected to her role and has vowed not to run for election once her term ends on December 31.
The Donald J. Trump Foundation also issued a statement. “This is politics at its very worst,” it said. “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. 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 [New York attorney general] has been holding hostage for political gain.
“This is unconscionable—particularly because the Foundation previously announced its intention to dissolve more than a year and a half ago. The prior [attorney general], 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 [attorney general’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.”
Previous investigations into the foundation showed that, in recent years, most of the money filling the Donald J. Trump Foundation’s coffers did not come from the Trumps. In fact, its biggest donors were pro-wrestling billionaire Vince McMahon and his wife, Linda, who now serves in the Trump Administration as head of the Small Business Administration.