Thursday, May 24, 2018
Politics

Pam Bondi breaks silence, defends handling of Trump University issue

TALLAHASSEE — Embattled Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi broke a long silence Tuesday and defended taking a $25,000 campaign check from Donald Trump while her staff reviewed a complaint about Trump University, a focus of lawsuits in two other states alleging fraud.

At a sometimes testy press conference at the state Capitol, Bondi said she had no regrets about taking Trump's money because her office had no active investigation when she sought the donation in August 2013.

"I just knew there was nothing improper," Bondi said. "I will never let money from anyone affect what I do. I'm proud of my office. I'm proud of the work that we do."

The Republican attorney general, a Trump supporter and a former Tampa prosecutor, has been under intense scrutiny for having accepted the contribution. Nearly two dozen people complained to the state about Trump University, most of them before she took office in 2011. Bondi said her office has received three complaints since she took office — one before the $25,000 donation and two after.

Bondi, 50, has repeatedly ignored requests that she explain how her office handled the Trump controversy. After a Cabinet meeting Tuesday, she refused to answer followup questions.

She and other Cabinet members usually are available after the meetings, but as Tuesday's meeting ended, Bondi walked out a side door that leads to her office and ignored reporters calling after her.

At a hastily called news conference before the Cabinet meeting, Bondi said her only regret was not meeting with reporters earlier to discuss an array of Trump-related documents, released by her office in April, that lay out the Trump University chronology.

"I would never, ever trade any campaign donation — that's absurd — for some type of favor to anyone," Bondi said.

Returning the contribution also was never seriously considered, she said.

"If I had returned it, you would have reported, 'Bondi accepted bribe, got caught, and returned it,' " she said. "There was nothing improper about it, so there was no reason to return it."

Bondi said she solicited a donation from Trump in the summer of 2013 as she contacted a wide circle of friends while seeking re-election. Neither she nor Trump have said specifically when or how the request was made.

She didn't need the money: She coasted to victory over her Democratic challenger, and the political committee that received Trump's money still has more than $150,000 in the bank.

During nearly 20 minutes of questions from reporters, Bondi would not elaborate on how she knew Trump before requesting the contribution.

At the time Trump sent the check, Bondi's New York counterpart, Eric Schneiderman, had filed suit against Trump University, seeking $40 million in damages. Another class-action lawsuit is pending in California.

Asked how she met the celebrity, Bondi gave a variety of answers that had one common thread: She wasn't sure. She said she thinks she met him "in college" but that she "didn't know him well at all," then said she "probably" met him in New York, where she was a contributor for Fox News.

She also said that Trump, a part-time Florida resident, might have reached out to her after seeing her prosecute a high-profile murder case while working as an assistant state attorney in Tampa. She did not identify the case and reporters did not pursue it.

In an interview with the Times/Herald before Tuesday's press conference, Bondi said she did not know that Trump University existed until the controversy began to consume her office.

That's a moot point. Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bondi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach in March 2014 that raised an estimated $150,000 for her re-election — five months after she said she learned about the Trump University controversy.

Asked by a reporter Tuesday if she feels that her "credibility is shot" with Floridians, Bondi said: "I hope not."

She dismissed outright a suggestion that she consider resigning from office.

Trump paid a $2,500 federal tax penalty for writing the initial check from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a charity under his control that is prohibited from engaging in political activity.

Bondi said her citizen services unit, the point of entry for consumer complaints, has received about 800,000 calls, letters and emails since she took office in 2011.

She said she asked her chief deputy, Trish Conners, to review the volume of consumer complaints on file in her office on Monday, "to put it in perspective."

To provide context, Bondi disclosed a dozen complaints over the past four years against the Tampa Bay Times.

None of those reached her desk, either, she said.

"Those were all handled on a staff level," Bondi said. "That's how it gets handled."

Most of the Times complaints involved no more than $100 and as little as $5, mostly over subscriptions or promotions. Bondi did not provide details on how those complaints were resolved. Claims against Trump University reached into the thousands of dollars, but were not investigated.

Times/Herald staff writer Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.

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