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  1. Florida Politics

Old questions resurface as Attorney General Pam Bondi endorses Donald Trump

Pam Bondi, who endorsed Donald Trump on Monday, greets the GOP presidential front-runner at a campaign event in Tampa.
Pam Bondi, who endorsed Donald Trump on Monday, greets the GOP presidential front-runner at a campaign event in Tampa.
Published Mar. 15, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi on Monday became the first big-name Republican official in the state to endorse Donald Trump for president.

At a rally in her hometown of Tampa, the state's top legal officer — the woman Trump called "the most popular person in Florida, by far" — praised the Republican front-runner as an outsider who will keep Americans safe.

"Donald and I have been friends for many years," Bondi said, "and I can tell you some things about Donald that I have seen firsthand," alluding to how nicely he treats his family.

The endorsement, however, dredged up a nearly 3-year-old question from the last time Bondi and Trump made headlines together: Why didn't the Florida Attorney General's Office investigate fraud complaints against Trump University?

In the fall of 2013, Bondi was preparing for a re-election bid and a for-profit college called Trump University had just been sued by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The lawsuit alleged that Trump University had "scammed" more than 5,000 people out of more than $40 million by falsely promising to teach them the tools to Trump's real estate success.

With media scrutiny mounting, the Donald J. Trump Foundation that September contributed $25,000 to And Justice for All, a political committee controlled by Bondi.

Florida never followed New York's lead. Although there were complaints in Florida, the state never opened an investigation.

Charles Jacobson of Bradenton was one of the people who filed a Trump University complaint with Bondi's office. In 2011, he wrote that he "lost more than $26,000" to the college and had "since declared personal bankruptcy because of it."

"The determination was rightfully made that that complaint would be addressed in the ongoing lawsuit in New York," said Whitney Ray, spokesman for the Attorney General's Office.

That decision didn't involve Bondi directly, Ray said.

"Absolutely not," he said. "It didn't rise to her level."

Jacobson's was the only complaint about Trump University that Bondi's office received from the time she took office in January 2011 until September 2013, Ray said. Lawsuits allege that as many as 20 complaints about various Trump events and seminars were "reviewed" by the state while the previous attorney general, Bill McCollum, was in office from 2007 to 2011.

But in the aftermath of media attention toward the for-profit college in 2013, two more people contacted Bondi's office with similar stories.

Neither of those cases was ever investigated, either.

The Trump presidential campaign did not respond to questions Monday.

In 2013, he wouldn't answer Times/Herald questions about why he was contributing to an attorney general's race in Florida. But he did release a statement calling Bondi "a fabulous representative of the people" and Schneiderman "a political hack."

As for Bondi, she praised Trump on Monday for bringing new voters into the political arena. He's an outsider who has never run for office before, she said, just like she was in 2010 when she first ran for attorney general after working as a prosecutor in Tampa.

"I felt Florida needed to be changed," Bondi said. "Now, our country and our world need someone who is going to protect our security like never before, and that's why I support Donald."

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Kristen M. Clark contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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