1. Opinion

Editorial: Feds should investigate Bondi-Trump connection

Federal prosecutors should investigate whether there is any connection between the decision by Attorney General Pam Bondi's office not to pursue fraud allegations against Trump University and a $25,000 campaign contribution he gave her. Since Florida prosecutors will not touch this mess, the Justice Department is the only option. The appearance of something more than a coincidence is too serious and the unresolved questions are too numerous to accept blanket denials by Bondi and Trump without more digging and an independent review.

Scrutiny of the Trump check and the decision by Bondi's office not to investigate complaints about Trump University has intensified in recent days as the presidential campaign has heated up. The Washington Post reported that Trump paid a $2,500 penalty this year to the Internal Revenue Service and refunded his foundation $25,000 because the contribution violated tax laws. The check came from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which is a tax-exempt nonprofit prohibited from contributing to political campaigns. But the violation was undetected for years because of what the Trump campaign characterizes as a clerical error in listing the contribution as given to another group in Kansas with a similar name to Bondi's campaign effort.

Even more important is the sequence of events in 2013. The Orlando Sentinel reported on Sept. 14, 2013, that a spokeswoman for Bondi's office said it was "currently reviewing the allegations" in a New York lawsuit involving Trump University. Three days later, Trump's foundation wrote a $25,000 check to Bondi's campaign committee. After the check was received, Bondi's office decided not to launch its own investigation or to join a lawsuit filed by New York's attorney general. That timing simply does not look right and deserves an independent look to reassure Floridians that the state's top legal officer did nothing wrong.

Bondi has tried various defenses, and none of them are convincing. The Associated Press previously reported that Bondi personally spoke with Trump about a campaign contribution "several weeks" before her office publicly revealed it was reviewing fraud allegations, but that makes no difference. She has said the issues about Trump University first surfaced under her predecessor and never reached her desk, which raises more questions about her management. Her office also cannot get its story straight regarding how many complaints it had received about Trump University, ranging from zero to two over the years. Yet the Sentinel reports there are at least 20 Floridians who filed complaints with the Attorney General's Office, and at least eight Floridians complained in the New York case that they were victims of fraud. The only fact in Bondi's favor is that her campaign tried to return the Trump contribution when it discovered it was from the nonprofit but was rejected.

Now Bondi, who is further tarnishing her own reputation with her unqualified support of Trump, is resorting to playing the victim. She declared on Fox Business this week that she "will not be collateral damage in a presidential campaign. Nor will I be a woman bullied by Hillary Clinton.'' This has nothing to do with Clinton, and Bondi has been her own worst enemy. Sticking to friendly national media outlets and avoiding Florida journalists is not the strategy of a statewide elected official with nothing to hide.

The denials by Bondi and Trump of anything amiss also are at odds with their previous actions. The attorney general has not been shy about joining lawsuits with other states, and the New York lawsuit involves Floridians who allege they were cheated by Trump University. Trump had not contributed to Bondi's election campaigns before sending the $25,000, and he was clear during a Republican primary debate about what he expects in return for campaign contributions: "When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.''

A small bipartisan group of political leaders led by former U.S. Sen. Bob Graham has been urging the Justice Department for years to get more aggressive in investigating corruption in the state capital. A thorough look into Bondi's decisionmaking regarding Trump University and the $25,000 campaign donation would be a good place to start.