TALLAHASSEE — Donald Trump clearly needs help winning over women voters, but his most prominent female ally in Florida, Attorney General Pam Bondi, is reeling from a Trump-related controversy.
Bondi broke her silence Tuesday over her solicitation of a $25,000 check she received from a Trump foundation in 2013 at a time when her office was considering whether to join a New York state investigation of consumer complaints against Trump University.
Bondi, who's poised to join Trump at a presidential campaign rally in Tampa on Saturday, was upset by news accounts implying that she dropped an investigation into Trump's education program because of the contribution.
"I never, nor was my office, investigating him. Never. I would never lie. I would never take money. I've been obviously devastated over this," Bondi said in a voicemail message to a Times/Herald reporter.
In a separate statement, Bondi called Monday's Associated Press report on the Trump University issue "misleading," adding: "No one in my office ever opened an investigation of Trump University, nor was there a basis for doing so."
The AP account said Bondi "nixed" suing Trump, but it did not say that she had opened an investigation.
Bondi's spokesman, Whitney Ray, told the Times/Herald that Assistant Attorney General Mark Hamilton reviewed the "few complaints" the office had on file about Trump University and made the "rightful determination" that because New York's lawsuit was on behalf of all consumers nationwide, "no further action need be taken."
But the timing raised questions, and Democrats, smelling blood, pounced on the Republican attorney general, sensing an opening to further discredit Trump in a key state.
The Florida Democratic Party called for an independent investigation of the "dirty money" that party chairwoman Allison Tant said Bondi should have returned to Trump.
"Bondi's conduct is unacceptable," Tant said.
Bondi tried to refund the money in March because it came from a charitable foundation not authorized to make campaign contributions.
But according to Nancy Watkins, a Tampa accountant for Bondi's political committee, And Justice for All, the refund was rejected and Trump wrote a personal check.
Bondi's statement on Tuesday made no mention of the $25,000 Trump check. Nor did it refer to her involvement in a Trump conference call Monday with campaign surrogates in which the presumptive Republican presidential nominee doubled down on his criticism of a federal judge, Gonzalo Curiel, that various leading Republicans have denounced as racist.
Curiel presides over class-action lawsuits in Florida and California involving disgruntled Trump University students, including senior citizens in Florida.
Bondi casts herself as a tenacious protector of the elderly from scams. And lawyers in the class-action suits are trying to win a settlement partly by taking advantage of Florida laws that protect seniors from financial abuse.
Trump has called the judge biased, negative and "Mexican," and said his heritage is a conflict of interest because Trump wants to build a wall on the Mexican border.
The BloombergPolitics website said that Trump encouraged Bondi and other surrogates on Monday's call to intensify their criticism of the judge and to cast reporters as racists.
Success in Florida is vital to Trump's presidential hopes.
He will return Saturday to Bondi's political home base of Tampa for a rally at the Tampa Convention Center at which 25,000 people are expected.
Polls show Trump with a commanding lead over Hillary Clinton among men, but he lags in support among women, who generally vote in larger numbers than men.
Bondi, the only woman who holds statewide office in Florida, is in a commanding position to help Trump in the pivotal electoral battleground of Florida. She cannot run again because of term limits.
A telegenic former Hillsborough assistant state attorney and frequent guest on Fox News, Bondi would be the best-known woman at Trump's rally.
Speakers include Dena DeCamp, president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women, who said it's the first time the 65-year-old grass roots GOP group has been given such a coveted presence at a presidential campaign rally.
"He is talking about security, which women favor," said DeCamp, who runs a custom embroidery business in Lakeland. "I don't think women are going to reject Donald Trump to the extent that they are saying."
DeCamp declined to speak about the Bondi controversy and said she didn't know all of the details. "Not a comfortable place for me to be," she said.
In March, Trump held a rally at the convention center in a room that fit only about 1,000 people — the day before he overwhelmingly won Florida's presidential primary. Trump also drew more than 10,000 people to a rally at the USF Sun Dome in February.
Tampa Bay, where Clinton is about to open a statewide headquarters, is home to about one of every four Florida voters and likely to be a pivotal battleground between the presumptive nominees.
"Mr. Trump has developed some of the most iconic assets and created thousands of jobs in Florida," Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks said. "He looks forward to a running a very strong general election campaign in the state he considers his second home."
Times staff writer Alex Leary and Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.