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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Bondi's office looked at — but did not investigate — Trump's ties to questionable business owners



Attorney General Pam Bondi said this week there was “no basis” to investigate Donald Trump's real estate seminars. But internal documents from her office show red flags were at least visible, raising fresh questions just as Bondi plans to appear with Trump at a rally Saturday in Tampa.

Emails reviewed by the Tampa Bay Times show Bondi’s staff was aware of a “clear link at some point” between Trump Institute and a Boca Raton business that had come under state investigation.

In 2001, the AG’s office, then overseen by Democrat Bob Butterworth, opened an investigation into Proven Methods Seminars/National Grants Conferences, “which at one time appears to have been using the name ’Trump Institute’ out of Boca Raton through a licensing arrangement with Trump,” special counsel Mark Hamilton wrote in an Oct. 14, 2013, email to Bondi’s communications team.

Bondi’s staff at the time was trying to sort out the ties amid questioning from reporters whether she would join New York's probe into Trump University.

Bondi chose not to pursue action or join a New York State investigation because few complaints from Floridians came in under her watch.

It's a confusing backstory.

Trump Institute surfaced in Florida around 2005 when the businessman licensed his name to seminar operators. Yet promotional material often listed the institute name alongside the Trump University banner.

Butterworth's probe in 2001 resulted in an AVC, or assurance of voluntary compliance, that aimed to curb questionable marketing practices at National Grants Conferences, which was run by get-rich-quick marketers Mike and Irene Milin and provided the platform for Trump’s foray into the seminar business, legal documents show.

The Milins -- targets of fraud investigations in numerous states -- also operated Business Strategies Group, which licensed the Trump Institute name for real estate seminars that some say were nothing more than a ripoff.

Despite ties cited by state officials in internal emails, Bondi’s office on Friday isolated the various entities.

"The AVC dealt with stopping misleading advertising and misrepresentations that led consumers to believe they could obtain free grant monies through the company’s services and that a majority of their customers received such awards,” Bondi’s office said in an email Friday evening to the Times.

"Nothing in the AVC indicates that the conduct in question had anything to do with real estate investment seminars. The AVC required that the misleading conduct be stopped along with a payment of $7,500 for the state’s investigative costs.”

Misconduct allegations kept coming and in 2009, the state investigated violations of the agreement. The case was closed because National Grants Conferences had entered bankruptcy proceedings, Bondi’s office said.

In another October 2013 email, a Bondi staffer observed the complexity of the ties. But she wrote that there was a “clear link at some point” between the Trump branded business and National Grants Conference.

The decision not to join the New York investigation has become a major political problem for Bondi, who took office in January 2011 and has endorsed Trump.

Demands are rising for an independent investigation into a $25,000 contribution Trump made to a political committee supporting Bondi four days after the Republican publicly said she was considering joining the New York investigation. 

Bondi personally solicited the donation from Trump, The Associated Press reported this week, a disclosure that gained widespread attention.

"My office has made public every document on this issue, which shows no one in my office ever opened an investigation on Trump University nor was there a basis for doing so,” Bondi said Tuesday. "Any news story that suggests otherwise is completely false. I have spent my career prosecuting criminals and protecting Floridians and will not compromise my dedication to our citizens."

Bondi’s office Friday dismissed a question whether the history her staff researched, however convoluted, raised red flags meriting further investigation, calling it "simply not accurate."

Her office sought to provide a better understanding the issue, noting that 20 complaints about Trump Institute came in under the watch of her predecessor, Bill McCollum. Because the Florida entities connected to Trump Institute went out of business due to bankruptcy, “it was determined in 2010 that no relief could be realistically obtained for the 20 complaitaints and no further action was taken.”

McCollum told the Tampa Bay Times this week that complaints about the Trump-branded seminars never reached his desk. Emails show Bondi’s staff was aware of those complaints in 2013, when the Trump questions began to escalate.

Only three complaints came under Bondi, her office said. But, a spokesman said Friday, they were about New York-based Trump University, “a completely different entity and not the now defunct operation in Boca Raton.

"Because this office had only one complaint about Trump University pending at the time the New York litigation was filed in August of 2013, and that one complaint clearly would be addressed by the litigation, a determination was properly made by our staff attorney, that no further action need be taken."

[Last modified: Saturday, June 11, 2016 11:35am]


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