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  1. Florida Politics

Trump's charity runs on few of his own dollars

Donald Trump was in a tuxedo, standing next to his award: a statue of a palm tree, as tall as a toddler. It was 2010, and Trump was being honored by a charity — the Palm Beach Police Foundation — for his "selfless support" of its cause.

His support did not include any of his own money.

Instead, Trump had found a way to give away somebody else's money, and claim the credit for himself.

Trump had earlier gone to a charity in New Jersey — the Charles Evans Foundation, named for a deceased businessman — and asked for a donation. Trump said he was raising money for the Palm Beach Police Foundation.

The Evans Foundation said yes. In 2009 and 2010, it gave a total of $150,000 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a small charity that the Republican presidential nominee founded in 1987.

Then, Trump's foundation turned around and made donations to the police group in South Florida. In those years, the Trump Foundation's gifts totaled $150,000.

Trump had effectively turned the Evans Foundation's gifts into his own gifts, without adding any money of his own.

On the night that he won the Palm Tree Award for his philanthropy, Trump may have actually made money. The gala was held at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, and the police foundation paid to rent the room. It's unclear how much was paid in 2010, but the police foundation reported in its tax filings that it rented Mar-a-Lago in 2014 for $276,463.

The Donald J. Trump Foundation is not like other charities. An investigation of the foundation — including examinations of 17 years of tax filings and interviews with more than 200 individuals or groups listed as donors or beneficiaries — found that it collects and spends money in a very unusual manner.

For one thing, nearly all of its money comes from people other than Trump. In tax records, the last gift from Trump was in 2008. Since then, all of the donations have been other people's money — an arrangement that experts say is almost unheard of for a family foundation.

Trump then takes that money and generally does with it as he pleases. In many cases, he passes it on to other charities, which often are under the impression that it is Trump's own money.

In two cases, he has used money from his charity to buy himself a gift. In one of those cases — not previously reported — Trump spent $20,000 of money earmarked for charitable purposes to buy a six-foot-tall painting of himself.

Money from the Trump Foundation has also been used for political purposes, which is against the law. The Washington Post reported this month that Trump paid a penalty this year to the IRS for a 2013 donation in which the foundation gave $25,000 to a campaign group affiliated with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Trump's foundation appears to have repeatedly broken IRS rules, which require nonprofit groups to file accurate paperwork. In five cases, the Trump Foundation told the IRS that it had given a gift to a charity whose leaders told the Post that they had never received it. In two other cases, companies listed as "donors" to the Trump Foundation told the Post that those listings were incorrect.

Last week, the Post submitted a detailed list of questions about the Trump Foundation to Trump's campaign. Officials with the campaign declined to comment.

Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, have both been criticized during their campaigns for activities related to their foundations.

Critics have charged that the giant Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation, which employs more than 2,000 people and spends about a quarter of a billion dollars a year, has served as a way for businesses and powerful figures across the world to curry favor with one of America's most powerful families. The Clinton Foundation has also been credited by supporters and critics alike for its charitable efforts.

Trump has claimed that he gives generously to charity from his own pocket: "I don't have to give you records," he told the Post earlier this year, "but I've given millions away." Efforts to verify those gifts have not succeeded, and Trump has decline to release his tax returns, which would show his charitable giving.

That leaves the Trump Foundation as the best window into the GOP nominee's philanthropy.

• • •

Trump started his foundation in 1987 with a narrow purpose — to give away some of the proceeds from his book The Art of the Deal.

Nearly three decades later, the Trump Foundation is still a threadbare, skeletal operation.

The most money it has ever reported having was $3.2 million at the end of 2009. At last count, that total had shrunk to $1.3 million. By comparison, Oprah Winfrey — who is worth $1.5 billion less than Trump, according to a Forbes magazine estimate — has a foundation with $242 million in the bank. At the end of 2014, the Clinton Foundation had $440 million in assets.

In a few cases, Trump seemed to solicit donations only to immediately give them away. But his foundation has also received a handful of bigger donations — including $5 million from professional-wrestling executives Vince and Linda McMahon — that Trump handed out a little at a time.

In many other cases, his biggest donors have not wanted to say why they gave their own money, when Trump was giving none of his. Several declined to comment for this article.

• • •

About 10 years ago, the Trump Foundation underwent a major change — although it was invisible to those who received its gifts.

The checks still had Trump's name on them.

Behind the scenes, he was transforming the foundation from a standard-issue rich person's philanthropy into a charity that allowed a rich man to be philanthropic for free.

Experts on charity said they had rarely seen anything like it.

"Our common understanding of charity is you give something of yourself to help somebody else. It's not something that you raise money from one side to spend it on the other," said Leslie Lenkowsky, the former head of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and a professor studying philanthropy at Indiana University.

By that definition, was Trump engaging in charity?

No, Lenkowsky said.

"It's a deal," he said, an arrangement worked out for maximum benefit at minimum sacrifice.

In the Trump Foundation's early days, between 1987 and 2006, Trump was its primary donor. Over that span, Trump gave his own foundation a total of $5.4 million. But he was giving it away as fast as he put it in, and by the start of 2007, the foundation's assets had dropped to $4,238.

Then, Trump made a change.

First, he stopped giving his own money.

His contribution shrank to $35,000 in 2007.

Then to $30,000 in 2008.

Then to $0.

At the same time, Trump's foundation began to fill with money from other people.

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