Trump University scandal looking more like corruption? Trump made political donations to attorneys general who dropped investigations

The top Republican prosecutors in Texas and Florida dismissed complaints against Trump's scam after receiving funds

By Sophia Tesfaye

Senior Politics Editor

Published June 3, 2016 2:08PM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Jae C. Hong)
Donald Trump (AP/Jae C. Hong)

During the first Republican primary debate last August, Donald Trump outlined his model of success as a businessman and real estate mogul dealing with political bureaucracies, in an effort to explain away his past political donations to Democrats -- including Hillary Clinton -- and call out American campaign finance as corrupt.

"I was a businessman, I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me":

This week, while Trump railed against the judge who unsealed the documents in a lawsuit against Trump University, blasting him as fundamentally biased because of his "Mexican heritage," new reports revealed how exactly Trump leveraged his political contributions to get him out of legal trouble.

"It's fraud. ... straight-up fraud," Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York who launched a lawsuit against Trump University in 2013 that is still pending, said during an MSNBC interview on Thursday morning.

But some Republican Attorneys General who received complaints from constituents about Trump's for-profit "educational program" reportedly disagreed with Schneiderman's assessment, dismissing complaints against Trump University around the time the businessman made substantial political donations to their election efforts.

An Associated Press report released on Thursday highlighted two such cases from former Texas attorney general Greg Abbott and current Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

Abbott, now the state's governor, reportedly opened a civil investigation into “possibly deceptive trade practices” when Trump University made inroads in Texas, but "Abbott’s probe was quietly dropped in 2010 when Trump University agreed to end its operations in Texas.”

"Trump subsequently donated $35,000 to Abbott’s successful gubernatorial campaign, according to records,”  the AP reported.

According to the former deputy director of Texas' Consumer Protection Division, Abbott's decision to drop the case was clearly motivated by Trump's political involvement.

“The decision not to sue him was political,” John Owens told The Dallas Morning News“Had [Trump] not been involved in politics to the extent he was at the time, we would have gotten approval. Had he been just some other scam artist, we would have sued him”:

According to internal documents provided to The News about the state’s investigation into Trump University, the consumer protection division filed a formal request May 6, 2010, to sue both Trump and his namesake real estate program. Five days later, it set out settlement options to help Texas taxpayers get back the more than $2.6 million they spent on seminars and materials, plus another $2.8 million in penalties and fees.

Both requests were denied, an unusual decision, Owens says, that was made at the top of the agency.

“The refusal of the administration to do anything stunk,” said Owens, a career state employee who worked under three attorneys general and received a commendation for having “greatly contributed to the accomplishments of our office” from Abbott upon his retirement in 2011.

“We routinely got approval to sue people. We routinely went after bogus schools that offered false diplomas,” he added.


According to Texas investigators, Trump University hadn’t completed paperwork necessary to even do business in Texas.

Investigators were scheduled to meet with Trump representatives on May 19, 2010, to pitch the $5.4 million settlement proposal. That meeting never took place, Owens said. Instead, the division received “verbal notification” that the investigation and the lawsuit were over.

The News went on to explain that, according to the internal documents, nearly 300 Texans paid more than $425,000 to attend Trump University’s three-day seminar, while 39 purchased additional classes costing $35,000 each. Another 150 people spent more than $826,000 on other goods and services.

“The Texas Attorney General’s office investigated Trump U and its demands were met — Trump U was forced out of Texas and consumers were protected," Abbott’s communications director, Matt Hirsch, told the Dallas Morning News in response to Owens' allegations. "It’s absurd to suggest any connection between a case that has been closed and a donation to Governor Abbott four years later.

In Florida, the AP reported that "Attorney General Pam Bondi briefly considered joining with Schneiderman in a multi-state suit against Trump University," but decided against it after a political contribution from Trump: 

Three days after Bondi's spokeswoman was quoted in local media reports as saying the office was reviewing the New York lawsuit, the Donald J. Trump Foundation made a $25,000 contribution to a political fundraising committee supporting Bondi's re-election campaign.

Bondi, a Republican, soon dropped her investigation, citing insufficient grounds to proceed.

That seeming conflict of interest was criticized in the Florida press at the time, but Bondi's office dismissed any allegations of impropriety, arguing that complaints filed to the office against Trump University weren't pursued because New York's Attorney General was already investigating.

“This administration received one complaint from the time Attorney General Bondi took office until the media began erroneously reporting there was an investigation,” said Whitney Ray, a spokesman for Bondi’s office, in March. “In total this administration, from 2011 through last week, had received a total of three complaints.”

More on those specific complaints from Politico:

On Sept. 24, 2013, the office received a complaint from a Harold Stevens, who had already filed a complaint with Schneiderman’s office. Bondi’s office sent him to the state’s voluntary mediation program under the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and suggested he hire a private attorney.

On Oct. 31, 2014, Bondi’s office got another complaint from Mike Murphy, who said he was aware of the New York lawsuit. He referenced two organizations, including Trump University. He was also referred to the voluntary mediation program and advised to hire a private attorney. Murphy’s complaint did not seek monetary damages.

While it isn't unreasonable to think that conservative AGs, such as Abbott and Bondi, would be more inclined to oppose government oversight even in their roles as chief prosecutor in their states, some Republicans are calling out the the hint of corruption.

"Every time I’m surprised someone endorsed him, there’s a a quid pro quo — $25,000 buys a lot when it comes to a state-level politician,” Katie Packer, a former Mitt Romney aide who now runs Our Principles, an anti-Trump super PAC, said back in March when Bodi switched her endorsement from Jeb Bush to Trump ahead of the Florida primary. “It’s very clear Pam Bondi is attracted to the glitz and glamor of Donald Trump. He gave her money. There was a problem. And she didn’t investigate.”

By Sophia Tesfaye

Sophia Tesfaye is Salon's senior editor for news and politics, and resides in Washington, D.C. You can find her on Twitter at @SophiaTesfaye.

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