Ethics panel clears Florida official over Trump contribution

AP News
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Posted: Apr 21, 2017 7:00 PM

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — After conducting a probe that included a face-to-face interview with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the state's ethics commission is throwing out complaints related to Bondi's decision to seek a $25,000 campaign contribution from Donald Trump nearly four years ago.

Bondi asked for — and got — money from Trump's charitable foundation about the same time her office was being asked about a New York investigation of alleged fraud at Trump University. She also received a $500 contribution from his daughter Ivanka Trump the same month.

During a closed-door meeting Friday, the Florida Commission on Ethics concluded there was no probable cause that Bondi violated any state laws, according to Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney who represented one of the people who filed a complaint against her.

The commission endorsed the recommendations of an outside lawyer who reviewed the case after an investigator looked into four separate complaints. Those complaints raised questions about the contributions to Bondi, as well as her decision to endorse Trump right before Florida's Republican primary, and her appointment to Trump's transition team after he won the presidential election.

"Admittedly it may raise suspicions within a month after the New York attorney general announced that New York would be filing a lawsuit against Trump University, Donald Trump contributed $25,000 to the respondent or her organizations," attorney George Reeves wrote to the commission. "However, in this case there is no evidence that the respondent was involved with the investigation or decisions regarding Trump University."

As part of the investigation, Bondi was personally interviewed along with her attorney. The investigator also questioned the official who handled complaints concerning Trump University and he said he never discussed them with Bondi.

"I reviewed those complaints and she had nothing to do with them," said Mark Hamilton, who now works for the Department of Revenue, an agency that reports to Gov. Rick Scott, Bondi and two other elected officials. "The buck stops here."

The investigator stated that "efforts to reach President Trump or a member of his staff for an interview were unsuccessful."

J. Whitfield Larrabee, a Massachusetts trial attorney who filed one of the complaints, criticized the ethics commission because he said they did not look at Bondi's decision to accept a contribution from a charity. Trump's 2013 check, drawn on an account in the name of the Donald J. Trump Foundation, violated a federal prohibition against charities giving money to political groups. The issue garnered national media coverage last year during Trump's presidential campaign, and his foundation paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS.

"I am disappointed that the Attorney General has engaged in a clear violation of the law without any consequence," Larrabee said in an email.

Though both Trump University and the Florida-based Trump Institute had stopped offering classes by the time Bondi took office in 2011, more than 20 complaints had been filed by former students who claimed they were swindled.

A judge earlier this month approved an agreement for the president to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits over Trump University, ending nearly seven years of legal battles with customers who claimed they were misled by failed promises to teach success in real estate.

The Associated Press reported last June that Bondi personally asked Trump for help for her 2014 re-election. She has said she turned to him because he was on a list of "friends and family" she sought money from when she first ramped up fundraising efforts.

Trump signed a check on Sept. 9, 2013, and it was received by Bondi's political committee on Sept. 17 of that year.

But by that time, emails show top officials in her office, including her chief of staff, were aware that reporters in Florida were asking about a lawsuit against Trump University by the New York attorney general.

Bondi's office said at the time that it was "reviewing" the lawsuit, but it never took any other action. Bondi said her office receives tens of thousands of such complaints each year. Bondi said she was unaware that her office had been asked about the New York lawsuit until a Florida columnist highlighted the case and the donation from Trump.

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