Trump accused of using charitable foundation as personal piggy bank

Prosecutor sues US president for ‘persistent illegal conduct’ over more than a decade

File photograph of US president Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC. File photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

File photograph of US president Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, DC. File photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

 

Donald Trump has been accused by New York state prosecutors of illegally using his charitable foundation as a personal piggy bank, improperly tapping its funds to support his presidential campaign and settle legal claims against his businesses.

In a lawsuit filed by the state’s attorney general on Mr Trump’s 72nd birthday, the US president was accused of engaging in a pattern of “persistent illegal conduct” over more than a decade and running the Donald J Trump Foundation “according to his whim, rather than the law”.

“The Trump Foundation was little more than a cheque book for payments from Mr Trump or his businesses to non-profits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” said Barbara Underwood in a statement. She became New York’s attorney general in May after Eric Schneiderman resigned following sexual harassment claims.

Ms Underwood’s office said it had sent referral letters to the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission for further investigation. The suit demands that the Trump family repays $2.8 million (€2.4 million).

The Trump Foundation was the focus of intense scrutiny during the presidential campaign as questions were raised about how much charitable giving Mr Trump and the foundation had actually engaged in.

Mr Trump called the case “ridiculous” on Twitter and said it was brought after he had refused to settle with prosecutors.

“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!” he wrote.

‘Empty shell’

Three months after the New York attorney general’s office opened the investigation in June 2016, it ordered the foundation to stop fundraising. After the election, Mr Trump said he would dissolve the charity, a move the attorney general blocked until its probe was complete.

On Thursday, Ms Underwood said the investigation had found the charity was “little more than an empty shell that functions with no oversight by its board of directors” and claimed Mr Trump had used the foundation’s cash to settle his companies’ legal claims, promote his election campaign and purchase personal items.

The lawsuit includes three of Mr Trump’s adult children – Donald Trump Jr, Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump, who served as board members of the foundation – as defendants. A spokesperson for the Trump Foundation said the lawsuit was politically motivated and called it “politics at its very worst”.

The allegations include a claim that a charitable fundraiser Mr Trump held in Iowa in early 2016, ahead of the presidential caucuses there, was in fact a campaign event. Mr Trump held the fundraiser instead of appearing in a televised debate with other Republicans vying for the party’s nomination in the forthcoming presidential election.

‘Self-dealing’

Trump aides, including Corey Lewandowski, then the campaign manager, “dictated the timing, amounts and recipients of grants” after the fundraiser, said the attorney general. An attorney for Mr Lewandowski did not immediately return a request for comment.

Following the fundraiser, cheques were presented to recipients of the funds at Trump campaign rallies “for the political benefit of Mr Trump and to support the campaign,” the lawsuit said.

The New York attorney general also alleged that the Trump Foundation made payments to settle legal claims made against Mar-a-Lago, Mr Trump’s Florida resort, and the Trump National Golf Club.

The alleged self-dealing included “a $10,000 payment at a charity auction to purchase a painting of Mr Trump that was displayed at the Trump National Doral in Miami”, according to the attorney general.

The lawsuit seeks to have the Trump Foundation dissolved and to ban Mr Trump from running a charity in New York for 10 years. It moved for his three children to be banned for one year and for the defendants to pay penalties. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018