WASHINGTON (CN) – House Democrats are calling on the Justice Department to investigate the Donald J. Trump Foundation over allegations the GOP presidential candidate used it to convince Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi to drop a Trump University fraud inquiry.
Seventeen Democratic members of the House Judiciary Committee signed a letter sent to Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Tuesday, pressing her to look into the bribery allegations.
As described in the letter, in September 2013, the Orlando Sentinel reported that Bondi’s office was considering joining a New York lawsuit against Trump University.
Four days later, the Donald J. Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to “And Justice for All,” a 527 group supporting the attorney general’s re-election campaign.
Shortly after receiving the donation, Bondi said she would drop the state’s probe against the maligned for-profit university, which students say swindled them out of thousands of dollars while delivering little if any of the business knowledge or connections it promised.
Bondi was re-elected in 2014. Since then, good government organizations have repeatedly raised questions about the donation and a possible quid-pro-quo.
Both Bondi and Trump have denied any impropriety, and Bondi now says she never said her office was thinking about joining the Trump University lawsuit.
Later, as questions continued to be posed about the donation, Bondi said she personally solicited the contribution weeks before she actually received it.
In addition, Trump reportedly paid a $2,500 penalty to the IRS earlier this year because the foundation’s donation to Bondi violated tax laws.
The Washington Post reported on Sept. 1. that the Trump Foundation did not list the $25,000 donation on its 2013 tax forms, but rather one to a nonprofit in Kansas with a similar name to Bondi’s group, to which the foundation did not give any money.
Trump refunded the Trump Foundation $25,000 for improper reporting attributed to a “clerical error.”
The Democrats’ letter says “The fact pattern indicates that these payments may have influenced Mrs. Bondi’s official decision not to participate in litigation against Mr. Trump.”
It goes on to cite criminal laws that could apply in the case, including bribery and perjury.
At a press conference Wednesday morning, the House Democrats said the alleged pay off fits with comments Trump has made to packed rallies on the campaign trail in which he brags about buying off politicians in an attempt to cement himself as knowledgeable about a “rigged” system he says he alone can fix.
“That is not how the system is supposed to work,” Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., said. “That is corruption of the system. That is rigging the system against the interests of the American people. People who are caught rigging the system should go to jail, not the White House, and at a minimum they should be investigated by the Justice Department when they are that brazen about breaking the law.”
Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., called the allegations a “prima facie” case of bribery and noted the Department of Justice would be the only entity capable of looking into the donation.
Likening it to the difficulty of finding an independent prosecutor to look into police shootings of minorities, Cohen said no state prosecutor would be likely to bring charges against his or her own attorney general.
But President Barack Obama’s Justice Department looking into a Republican candidate for president could cause its own image problem as well.
A Trump spokesman yesterday dismissed word that New York Attorney General Erich Schneiderman is looking into the foundation for as a “left-wing hit job.”
The Washington Post has reported that Trump used money from the foundation from his own purposes, including to buy a six-foot-tall painting of himself, and has not donated to the foundation since 2008, making other people’s donations appear to be his own, according to the Post.
Turning back speculation that any action from the Justice Department would seem politically motivated, House Democrats insisted the claims against Trump and Bondi should not be ignored simply because the election is drawing near.
“Ignoring corruption and turning the other cheek just because we are within a 60 day window of a general election is entirely inappropriate,” Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said at a press the news conference.
Cohen suggested Trump’s run for the White House makes the need for a federal investigation even greater, especially given Trump’s statements that he uses contributions to get what he wants from politicians.
“When he’s on the other end of those contribution, when he’s the one receiving them, will he operate in the same manner and realize this is the time for me to respond and to give them what they want because they gave me money?” Cohen said. “It’s really scary to think about that.”
The allegations against Trump’s foundation have drawn increased criticism recently, especially after the candidate seized on allegations that his rival Hillary Clinton gave preferential treatment to people who donated to the Clinton foundation while she was secretary of state.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a voicemail requesting comment on the letter or the allegations.
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