BY EMILY ATKIN – – – – –
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is in a bit of hot water.
The trouble started in June, when the Associated Press reported that Bondi “personally solicited a political contribution from Donald Trump” in 2013 — right around the time she was deciding whether or not to investigate alleged fraud at Trump University. Trump University, of course, is the controversial for-profit school owned by presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
It was only four days after Bondi announced she might join an investigation into Trump University when a Trump family foundation gave $25,000 to a political group supporting Bondi’s re-election. After that money came in, Bondi said she would not pursue a lawsuit against Trump University. Two years later — one day before Florida’s crucial primary election — Bondi endorsed Trump for president.
Bondi has so far denied impropriety, calling the AP’s story “false and misleading.” But the situation is not going away, and calls to investigate Bondi over the donation are piling up.
On Wednesday, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed two complaints against Bondi — one with the Florida Inspector General’s office and another with the Florida Commission on Ethics. Both complaints request investigations into Bondi, saying more information is needed to see whether Bondi violated Florida ethics law for public officials.
“The facts remain murky, but if decisions not to investigate Mr. Trump’s businesses were linked to Attorney General Bondi’s solicitation and acceptance of a $25,000 campaign contribution from the Trump Foundation, she may have violated Florida law and the state’s standards of conduct for public officials,” CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement.
CREW’s requests for investigations are not the first. Since the AP’s story broke, the editorial boards of the Orlando Sentinel, the Miami Herald, and the Tampa Bay Times have all called for independent investigations of the gift. Three ethics complaints were also filed against Bondi with the Florida Commission on Ethics, Florida Elections Commission, and Florida Bar. Boston attorney J. Whitfield Larrabee, who filed the ethics complaints, is also seeking a federal criminal bribery charge against Bondi, accusing her of taking the money in exchange for ditching the investigation into Trump University.
“If it looks like a bribe and quacks like a bribe, I think it’s a bribe,” Larrabee said.
Alleged bribery aside, there were problems with the donation itself as well. In March, CREW filed a complaint with the IRS over Trump’s $25,000 donation to Bondi’s group, noting that the money came from the Trump Foundation, a tax-exempt charity. Under federal law, tax-exempt charities are not allowed to make political donations. The Trump Foundation also apparently failed to list the Bondi donation in its filings to the IRS, according to the Washington Post.
The Trump Organization issued a rare apology, saying the discrepancies were due to multiple clerical errors. But CREW maintained an investigation by the IRS was still needed to determine whether it really was just an honest mistake.
“It appears [Trump University] gave an illegal political donation, told the IRS they didn’t give a political donation, claimed it was made to a similarly named permissible group instead — and now they’re saying it’s an error?” Jordan Libowitz, a CREW spokesperson, told the Post.
Bondi’s office did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment on the complaints. In the past, however, she’s maintained innocence by saying there just wasn’t enough evidence to pursue a case against Trump University, which is currently facing three separate lawsuits over alleged fraud.
Questions have been raised over that defense as well. Scott Maxwell, a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, said he trolled through nearly 8,500 pages of public records and found “[little] evidence that Bondi’s investigators had actually probed or investigated the complaints that had come her way.” CREW’s request for an investigation also alleges that Bondi’s office received several complaints about Trump University, but failed to investigate them.
Bondi is not the only state attorney general whose financial relationship with Trump has raised some eyebrows. Greg Abbott, the current governor of Texas and former attorney general, has also been accused of taking money from Trump in exchange for dropping an investigation into Trump University. The timeline of that donation, however, is a bit different than Bondi’s — Abbott dropped his investigation into Trump University in 2010, and received a cumulative $35,000 from Trump in 2013 and 2014.
Still, a former employee of Abbott’s said last month that the 2010 investigation should not have been dropped. John Owens, Texas’ former deputy chief of consumer protection, said he had developed a strong case against Trump University — but was inexplicably ordered to abandon it.
“It had to be political in my mind,” Owens told the AP, “because Donald Trump was treated differently than any other similarly situated scam artist in the 16 years I was at the consumer protection office.”
Like Bondi, Abbott’s spokespeople have denied any impropriety.