WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - President Donald Trump has agreed to shut down his embattled personal charity and to give away its remaining money amid allegations that he used the foundation for his personal and political benefit, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced on Tuesday. (Dec 18).
Underwood said that the Donald J. Trump Foundation is dissolving as her office pursues its lawsuit against the charity, Trump and his three eldest children.
The suit, filed in June, alleged “persistently illegal conduct” at the foundation, which Trump began in 1987.
Underwood is continuing to seek more than US$2.8 million (S$3.8 million) in restitution and has asked a judge to ban the Trumps temporarily from serving on the boards of other New York nonprofit organisations.
Underwood said on Tuesday that her investigation found “a shocking pattern of illegality involving the Trump Foundation – including unlawful coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing, and much more.”
“This is an important victory for the rule of law, making clear that there is one set of rules for everyone,” she added in a statement.
The shuttering comes after The Washington Post documented apparent lapses at the foundation. Trump used the charity’s money to pay legal settlements for his private business, to purchase art for one of his clubs and to make a prohibited political donation.
Trump denied that the organisation had done anything wrong. In late 2016, he said he wanted to close the foundation before he became president to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. But the New York attorney-general blocked that move while the investigation continued.
The settlement with Underwood’s office represents a concession by Trump to a state inquiry he has decried as a partisan attack. The case is one of numerous legal investigations of Trump organisations that have proliferated during his presidency.
In a court filing in New York, Underwood said the foundation’s remaining US$1.75 million will be distributed to other charities approved by her office and a state judge.
Alan Futerfas, an attorney for the Trump Foundation, issued a statement criticising Underwood for “politicising” the agreement.“
The Foundation has been seeking to dissolve and distribute its remaining assets to worthwhile charitable causes since Donald J. Trump’s victory in the 2016 Presidential election,” Futerfas said. “Unfortunately, the NYAG sought to prevent dissolution for almost two years, thereby depriving those most in need” of the foundation’s money, he said.
Futerfas said that, over its life, the foundation had given away about US$19 million, including US$8.25 million donated by Trump himself. The rest of the money came from other donors, notably pro-wrestling moguls Vince and Linda McMahon, who gave US$5 million. Trump later chose Linda McMahon to head the Small Business Administration.
As part of its agreement with the attorney-general’s office, the foundation will be required to sell its remaining assets and donate the proceeds, said Amy Spitalnick, a spokeswoman for Underwood.
That includes a Denver Broncos football helmet signed by former quarterback Tim Tebow, which Trump bought at a charity auction in 2012 with US$12,000 in Trump Foundation money. The charity also owns two large portraits of Trump, for which Trump paid a combined US$30,000 in foundation money.
Trump now values the three items – for which he spent US$42,000 in charity money – at a combined US$975, according to a recent IRS filing.
The attorney-general’s suit alleges that Trump used his charity’s money as his own piggy bank – including to help his presidential campaign by paying for giveaways at Iowa rallies.
“The Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments to not-for-profits from Mr Trump or the Trump Organisation,” Underwood wrote in the initial suit.
The Washington Post’s reporting showed that, for years, Trump appeared to use the foundation – which was, by law, an independent entity – to make payments that bolstered his interests.
The largest donation in the charity’s history – a US$264,231 gift to the Central Park Conservancy in 1989 – appeared to benefit Trump’s business: It paid to restore a fountain outside Trump’s Plaza Hotel. The smallest, a US$7 foundation gift to the Boy Scouts that same year, appeared to benefit Trump’s family. It matched the amount required to enroll a boy in the Scouts the year that his son Donald Trump Jr was 11.
The attorney-general’s investigation turned up evidence that Donald Trump Jr, Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump – all listed as officers of the charity – had never held a board meeting. The board hadn’t met since 1999. The charity’s official treasurer, Trump Organisation executive Allen Weisselberg, told investigators that he wasn’t aware that he was on the board.
State investigators asked him what the foundation’s policies were to determine whether its payments were proper.
“There’s no policy, just so you understand,” Weisselberg said.
At one point, Trump used the charity’s money to make a US$25,000 political donation to Florida Attorney-General Pamela Bondi, a Republican. The charity didn’t tell the IRS about that, as required – and instead listed that donation as a gift to an unrelated charity in Kansas with a similar name. Trump’s team blamed accounting mistakes.
In 2016, state investigators allege, Trump effectively “ceded control” of his charity to his political campaign. He raised more than US$2 million at a fundraiser in Iowa that flowed into the foundation. Then, the state said, Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski determined when and where it would be given away.
“Is there any way we can make some disbursements... this week while in Iowa?” Lewandowski wrote in an email cited in Underwood’s lawsuit.
Trump gave away oversize checks from the foundation at campaign events in the key early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire, pausing his campaign rallies to donate to local veterans’ groups.
Federal law prohibits charities from participating in political campaigns. As president, Trump has called repeatedly for that law to be repealed.
Underwood has asked the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission to investigate whether the Trump charity broke tax laws. Both agencies have declined to comment.
In his statement on Tuesday, Futerfas praised the foundation for operating with “virtually zero expenses.”
Indeed, the Trump Foundation had no paid employees.
It also spent very little on advice from lawyers. From 2001 to 2016, Trump’s charity spent a total of US$163 on legal fees – and, in many of those years, it spent US$0.
The demise of the Trump Foundation still leaves one mystery regarding a large portrait of Trump that he bought for US$20,000 in 2007, using money from the charity. What became of it after that is unknown.
In 2017, after The Post wrote about the portrait, Trump listed it as an asset on his charity’s IRS forms. He assigned it a value of US$700. But he did not say where it was.
On this year’s tax forms, however, the painting’s value was listed at US$0.
Trump’s attorney did not respond to a query from The Washington Post about why.