Monday, July 23, 2018
Politics

Trump contribution to Pam Bondi's re-election draws more scrutiny to her fundraising

TALLAHASSEE — For the second time in as many months, campaign contributions fueling the re-election efforts of Attorney General Pam Bondi are raising questions about the overlap between politics and how Florida's top law enforcement officer performs her duties.

Bondi apologized last month after she persuaded Gov. Rick Scott to delay an execution so she could host a fundraiser at her South Tampa home that ended up raising $140,000.

Now comes criticism of a $25,000 contribution made by one of Donald Trump's foundations to a political committee associated with Bondi. The donation came three days after an Attorney General's Office spokeswoman said Bondi was reviewing allegations in a lawsuit filed by the New York attorney general against get-rich-quick seminars associated with Trump.

New York's Eric Schneiderman filed the lawsuit Aug. 25, alleging that Trump University and its affiliates were "sham for profit colleges" that ripped off 5,000 consumers. He's seeking $40 million in restitution for the complainants.

"Mr. Trump used his celebrity status and personally appeared in commercials making false promises to convince people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn't afford for lessons they never got," Schneiderman said in a statement.

A Sept. 14 Orlando Sentinel story noted that Schneiderman cited dozens of complaints filed with the Florida Attorney General's Office in 2008, two years before Bondi took office. A spokeswoman for Bondi was quoted as saying the office was reviewing the New York lawsuit.

Three days later, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, based in New York, made a $25,000 contribution to And Justice for All, a political fundraising committee raising money for Bondi's re-election.

Florida hasn't followed New York's lead against Trump. Bondi couldn't be reached for comment. Jenn Meale, a Bondi spokeswoman, suggested no action is necessary because the affected Florida consumers would be compensated if New York wins that case.

But a review of the 22 complaints filed in 2008 show they named the "Trump Institute," an entity not named in the New York suit. Because those are technically different entities, it's unclear how many making those complaints would be covered, then, by the New York suit.

Meale points out that since Bondi has been attorney general, the office has received only one complaint about the Trump seminars. It was filed in 2011 by Charles Jacobson, who is now 62 and retired in Delray Beach. He says he lost $26,000 in fees to attend a three-day seminar in West Palm Beach.

"I took it because they told us it would make us rich, but it didn't teach me anything," he said. "Except my bankruptcy."

Jacobson has since asked Bondi's office to join the New York suit so that Florida consumers like him can get their money back. He says he was told that Florida doesn't get involved in class-action suits, which the New York case is not. When told about Trump's $25,000 contribution, Jacobson said it didn't look right.

"That's probably why she won't do it," he said. "But that should have nothing to do with it."

The contribution was made to a political committee that is technically not part of Bondi's official campaign.

Nancy Watkins, treasurer of And Justice for All, said there was no regret. "Based on the information at hand, we are comfortable with the propriety of the contribution from the Trump Foundation," she said.

Trump didn't answer why he was contributing to a Florida attorney general race or if he has contributed to other attorney general races.

But he did release a statement: "Pam Bondi is a fabulous representative of the people — Florida is lucky to have her. … The case in New York is pure politics brought by an incompetent attorney general, a political hack."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (850) 224-7263 or [email protected]

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