Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Tracing the controversy of Trump's $25,000 donation to Pam Bondi

TALLAHASSEE — Donald Trump gave $25,000 in 2013 to support Attorney General Pam Bondi's re-election bid.

The contribution triggered allegations then that it steered Bondi's office away from investigating Trump University.

Three years later, the contribution is back in the news. Here's a recap of where we are with the controversy.

Why is the contribution in the news right now?

Last week, Trump paid a $2,500 penalty to the Internal Revenue Service and refunded his foundation $25,000 from his personal wealth because the Sept. 17, 2013, contribution violated tax laws, the Washington Post reported.

The check came from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a tax-exempt nonprofit barred from contributing to political causes. The check went to And Justice For All, a committee that was the fundraising arm for Bondi's re-election campaign — and undeniably political in nature.

The donation's dubious legality was obscured for years because of an accounting error at the Trump Organization, which reported to the IRS that it had given $25,000 to a Kansas anti-abortion group called Justice for All.

"It's an unfortunate series of coincidences and errors," Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks told the Times/Herald in March.

What's so controversial about this campaign contribution?

It's the chronology.

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a lawsuit on Aug. 25, 2013, alleging that Trump University and its affiliates were "sham for-profit colleges" that ripped off 5,000 consumers.

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. In that story, a Bondi spokeswoman was quoted as saying Florida was reviewing the New York lawsuit.

Three days later, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, based in New York, made the $25,000 contribution.

Though there's no specific date, Bondi's office declined to pursue an investigation.

Six months later — on Friday, March 14, 2014 — Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bondi at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Palm Beach, which was reported at the time by other Florida media outlets.

What does Bondi say about that timing?

It's a moot point, Bondi's current spokesman Whitney Ray maintains, because Bondi herself was not a part of the decision not to investigate Trump University.

But Bondi did personally solicit the contribution, according to a report in June of this year by the Associated Press.

Hicks contends that "there was never any discussion of Trump University" during that phone call when Bondi asked for the donation.

Could politics really force an investigation to get dropped?

Yes, according to a former regulator in Texas who told the AP in June that he was pressured to drop a similar investigation into Trump University in 2010. Three years later, Trump contributed $35,000 to the then-attorney general's campaign for governor.

Who is investigating the contribution to Bondi's campaign?

A liberal watchdog, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a complaint with the Internal Revenue Service on Wednesday, calling for an investigation into the contribution.

Additionally, Bondi's solicitation of the $25,000 donation is the subject of a Florida ethics complaint filed this June by J. Whitfield Larrabee, a Massachusetts lawyer. No decision has been made.

Bondi received a June 14 letter from the Florida Commission on Ethics, notifying her of the complaint, which is confidential by law until a probable cause finding is made or the complaint is dismissed. The letter, signed by commission executive director Virlindia Doss, advised Bondi that she could waive confidentiality and make all documents in the case public.

Bondi has not waived confidentiality.

Why not?

"This is not about my strong record on transparency," said Bondi, whose office helps oversee the state's public records laws, in a statement. "These allegations are completely without merit, and the process is confidential to ensure that specious claims are not validated by the continuous spread of completely false allegations."

Did Bondi and Trump have a relationship before the $25,000 contribution?

Trump and Bondi both have said they're longtime friends.

"I've just known Pam Bondi for years," he told reporters traveling on his plane earlier this week, according to the Washington Post. "I have a lot of respect for her."

Bondi, a vocal Florida surrogate for Trump, told a Tampa rally in March that they have been "friends for years, and I know his family personally."

But when exactly did they meet?

Neither Bondi nor Trump is willing to discuss their relationship.

Bondi would not respond to Times/Herald questions.

Asked for specific information about when or how Trump first met Bondi and the nature of their relationship, Hicks wouldn't elaborate, only repeating that "they have a great relationship and have for many years."

Before she ran for attorney general, it's unclear how Bondi's life as an assistant state attorney in Hillsborough County intersected with that of Trump's in Palm Beach or Manhattan.

When Bondi did run in 2010 for attorney general, there's no record that Trump or his family made any political contributions, even though they had been active donors in Florida politics for years.

The first documented contribution to Bondi from the Trumps was on Sept. 10, 2013, when daughter Ivanka gave $500 — about two weeks after Schneiderman filed his suit in New York that Bondi's office was reviewing.

Has Bondi returned Trump's money?

State records show the money was never refunded to the Trump Foundation, but that's not for lack of trying, said Nancy Watkins, treasurer of And Justice For All.

Watkins said she FedExed a refund check to the Trump Foundation as soon as she found out that the contribution violated tax laws.

"It was refunded and he declined to accept the refund because he had already taken care of the issue with the IRS," Watkins said.

Times Tallahassee bureau chief Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at [email protected] Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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