TALLAHASSEE — It was Aug. 29, 2013, an unremarkable day inside Florida's whitewashed Capitol, and a typically sweltering one outside among the moss-bearded oaks and sabal palms. Around 3:45 p.m., Jennifer Meale, the communications director for Attorney General Pam Bondi, fielded a seemingly routine call from a financial reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. The attorney general of New York had recently filed a lawsuit against Donald J. Trump alleging fraud in the marketing of Trump University's real estate and wealth-building seminars. Had Florida ever conducted its own investigation, the reporter asked.
The call set off an exchange of emails between Meale and top lawyers in the office. She learned that 23 complaints about Trump-related education enterprises had been filed before Bondi became attorney general in 2011, and one since. They had never generated a formal investigation, she wrote the reporter, but added, "We are currently reviewing the allegations in the New York complaint."
The Sentinel's report, which was published on Sept. 13, 2013, paraphrased Meale's response and took it a step further, saying that Bondi's office would "determine whether Florida should join the multi-state case." Four days later, a check for $25,000 from the Donald J. Trump Foundation landed in the Tampa office of a political action committee that had been formed to support Bondi's 2014 re-election. In mid-October, her office announced that it would not be acting on the Trump University complaints.
The proximate timing of the Sentinel article and Trump's donation, and suspicions of a quid pro quo, have driven a narrative that has dogged Trump and Bondi for three years. It has intensified during Trump's presidential campaign, peaking this month with the filing of ethics complaints, calls for a federal investigation by editorial boards and Democrats in Congress, and a new investigation of Trump's foundation by New York regulators.
But documents obtained this week by the New York Times, including a copy of Trump's check, at least partly undercut that timeline. Although the check was received by Bondi's committee four days after the Sentinel report, and was recorded as such in her financial disclosure filings, it was actually dated and signed by Trump four days before the article appeared.
The check's date does not categorically demonstrate that Trump was not seeking to influence Bondi, a fellow Republican. Even as he has denied trying to do so in this instance, he has boasted brazenly and repeatedly during his presidential campaign that he has made copious campaign contributions over the past two decades, including to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats, in order to buy access and consideration for his business dealings.
Politicians in Florida, which Trump considers his second home, have been among his leading beneficiaries. An analysis of public records shows he has contributed at least $375,000 to state and federal candidates and political committees here since 1995, accounting for 19 percent of the roughly $2 million he has given to campaigns nationwide, other than his own.
Although not unprecedented, his $25,000 gift to And Justice for All, the committee supporting Bondi, is among his largest.
What is more, when Trump wrote that check, he still theoretically had reason to be concerned that Florida's attorney general could become a player in the legal assault on Trump University.
Through 2010, when the company ceased operations, Florida had been one of the most lucrative markets for his unaccredited for-profit school. It ranked second among states in purchases, with 950 transactions, and third in sales, at $3.3 million, according to an analysis of sales data revealed in court filings.
The lawsuit by New York's Democratic attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, which was announced on Aug. 25, 2013 — two weeks before Trump wrote the check to And Justice for All on Sept. 9 — did not cite allegations from consumers in Florida. But news organizations had reported as early as 2010 that the attorneys general of Florida and Texas had fielded complaints from consumers who had paid up to $35,000 for Trump's seminars and mentoring programs. His contribution, therefore, could have been a pre-emptive investment to discourage Bondi from joining the New York case.
Brian Ballard, Trump's lobbyist in Florida, said it was "ridiculous" to think his client sought to buy off Bondi. "I'm the Trump Organization lobbyist, and he has never, ever brought up Trump University with me," he said. "It wasn't something of concern to him. With Donald Trump, if a friend calls up and says, 'Listen, I'm running for XYZ, could you help me?' his instinct is to say yes. That's all it was."
Yet, even those who doubt anything nefarious between Trump and Bondi acknowledge that they bear blame for the intensifying focus on the appearance of a conflict.
For his part, Trump fanned the embers by sending the contribution from his nonprofit foundation, which cannot under federal law make political donations. When questions arose this year, he agreed to refund $25,000 to the foundation from his personal account and pay a $2,500 penalty to the Internal Revenue Service. Trump officials have called the mix-up an inadvertent error by his staff.
Bondi, meanwhile, has failed to explain why she accepted Trump's check even after learning that her office was examining the New York case against Trump University. Six months later, she allowed him to host a $3,000-per-head fund-raiser for her at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. Trump attended the event, which records indicate raised at least $50,000.
Now, with the revelation of the date on Trump's check — which came in a release of correspondence by Schneiderman — it appears that Trump and Bondi had in their possession a piece of favorable evidence that they bewilderingly failed to disclose.
"All these things come together in a way that if you don't unpack the whole thing, the unspoken implications coalesce to create this great suspicion," said Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Florida Republican strategist and lobbyist who disdains Trump and has never worked with Bondi. "The optics are terrible even though there is not a shred of evidence that Pam Bondi solicited a bribe or that Donald Trump provided one."
Trump and Bondi have said they share a long friendship, but the origins of it are not apparent. Bondi, who declined requests for an interview, initially backed former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida for president. After he withdrew from the race, she endorsed Trump the day before Florida's March 15 primary, snubbing the state's other favorite son, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. The only woman currently holding statewide elected office in Florida, she has since become an enthusiastic Trump surrogate.
Bondi became a conservative darling in 2010 when, as an assistant state attorney, she won her post in her first campaign of any kind. Her political future is unclear as she faces a two-term limit and has said she will not run for governor in 2018.
It was in late summer 2013, as her re-election campaign was gearing up, that Bondi called Trump to solicit the donation, aides to both of them have said; they have declined to provide a precise date. Records show that Trump had already donated $500 to Bondi's campaign on July 15. His daughter Ivanka Trump donated another $500 on Sept. 10.
The Texas attorney general's office, then under Greg Abbott, a Republican, had also decided in 2010 not to act on complaints against Trump University when it left the state. Trump later donated $35,000 to Abbott's successful 2014 campaign for governor. Abbott's office has denied there was any connection. No other attorneys general have joined Schneiderman's litigation.
Both Trump and Bondi have said they never discussed complaints against Trump University and a separate entity, Trump Institute, which Trump did not own but that paid him licensing fees to use his name for wealth seminars held in hotel ballrooms.
There is no evidence in more than 8,000 pages of documents released by Bondi's office in response to an open records request that she had any direct role in assessing a potential case against Trump University, or that she knew of the Florida complaints when she asked Trump for money.
That would not be unusual. Although most of the complaints were received before Bondi's election, her predecessor, Bill McCollum, said he had never heard about them. His two top deputies and the chief lawyer and investigator in his consumer protection division each said in interviews that the complaints never reached their level.
"For whatever reason, the synergy didn't exist before I left office," said McCollum, who received a $500 donation from Trump in 2006.
Tens of thousands of consumer allegations are lodged with Florida's attorney general each year on everything from used-car sales to pharmaceutical marketing to price gouging. The consumer protection division currently has 38 lawyers and 37 investigators. Limits on manpower and resources mean that most complaints do not prompt a formal probe and therefore do not come to the attorney general's attention, former officials said.
McCollum's deputy, Robert Hannah, and his consumer protection chief, Mary Leontakianakos, said the triage process took into account the quantity, veracity and seriousness of the complaints, as well as the number of Floridians affected and the potential to collect damages. Hannah said that "20 would not be the number of complaints that would cause someone to get concerned."
The complaints against Trump University continued once Bondi took over, albeit at a slower pace because Trump University, as well as Trump Institute, based in Boca Raton, Fla., were no longer operating.
In April 2011, Elizabeth J. Starr, then the chief of consumer protection in the Orlando office, wrote in an internal email that she had "light discussion" about devoting additional resources to assessing the Trump complaints. "The decision was made to hold off at that time," she wrote.
In the weeks after the initial September 2013 article in the Sentinel, Bondi received daily emails from her staff to her personal Yahoo address with news reports about the Trump case. By mid-October, Scott Maxwell, a columnist for the Sentinel, had spotted Trump's $25,000 donation in public filings and wrote that it smelled "awfully fishy." His column set off days of critical coverage.
Despite the pressure, Mark Hamilton, a lawyer in the consumer protection division who eventually had a discussion with an attorney prosecuting the New York case, pushed his view internally that already-announced litigation would cover any Floridians who had been harmed by Trump University. Within two days, the Times/Herald reported that Bondi's spokeswoman had said no action would be necessary because the affected Florida consumers would be compensated if Schneiderman won his lawsuit.
Trump also weighed in for the same article.
"Pam Bondi is a fabulous representative of the people — Florida is lucky to have her," he said in a statement. "The case in New York is pure politics brought by an incompetent attorney general, a political hack."