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The lawsuit, which seeks to dissolve the foundation and bar President Trump and three of his children from serving on nonprofit organisations, was an extraordinary rebuke of a sitting president.
The attorney general also sent referral letters to the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission for possible further action, adding to Trump’s extensive legal challenges. The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, culminated a nearly two-year investigation of Trump’s charity, which became a subject of scrutiny during and after the 2016 presidential campaign.
While such foundations are supposed to be devoted to charitable activities, the complaint asserts that Trump’s was often used to settle legal claims against his various businesses, even spending $10,000 on a portrait of Trump that was hung at one of his golf clubs. The foundation was also used to curry political favour, the lawsuit asserts.
During the 2016 race, the foundation became a virtual arm of Trump’s campaign, email traffic showed, with his campaign manager Corey Lewandowski directing its expenditures, even though such foundations are explicitly prohibited from political activities.
Trump immediately attacked the lawsuit, characterising it in a Twitter post as an attempt by the “sleazy New York Democrats” to damage him by suing the foundation, vowing not to settle the case.
The $10,000 portrait was one of several examples of the foundation being used in “at least five self-dealing transactions,” according to the attorney general’s office, violating tax regulations that prohibit using nonprofit charities for private interests.
In 2007, to settle a dispute between the City of Palm Beach and Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, the foundation paid $100,000 to the Fisher House Foundation, a charity.
In 2012, a man named Martin Greenberg sued the Trump National Golf Club after he made a hole-in-one at a fundraising golf tournament that had promised to pay $1 million to golfers who aced the 13th hole, as he did. As part of a settlement, the charitable foundation paid $158,000 to a foundation run by Greenberg. The foundation also paid $5,000 to one organisation for “promotional space featuring Trump International Hotels”.
The foundation lawsuit, and the referrals to the federal agencies, are the latest of Trump’s voluminous legal challenges, starting with the ongoing investigation by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, into ties between Trump, his associates and Russia.
The attorney general’s action is also likely to embolden critics who have accused Trump of flouting legal norms.
“As our investigation reveals, the Trump Foundation was little more than a checkbook for payments from Mr. Trump or his businesses to nonprofits, regardless of their purpose or legality,” said Barbara Underwood, New York’s attorney general, who has beenon her job little over a month.
The attorney general’s office is seeking $2.8 million in restitution, and the foundation and its directors could face several million dollars in additional penalties. It is also seeking to bar the president from serving as a director, officer or trustee of another nonprofit for 10 years.
Likewise, the petition seeks to bar Trump’s three eldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric, from the boards of nonprofits based in New York or that operate in New York for one year.