Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s acceptance of $25,000 from Donald Trump has fed allegations the past three years of pay-for-play involving complaints about his real estate seminars.
But an overlooked irony is that Bondi didn’t need the contribution.
During her lopsided 2014 re-election victory, she raised twice as much money as her Democratic challenger. The political committee that received the check has an unspent balance of $157,000.
Yet this extraneous contribution has carried an enormous cost, dominating the presidential campaign for weeks, jeopardizing Bondi’s reputation and producing calls for criminal investigations.
Just how did it become one of the most controversial campaign contributions in Florida history?
More than 9,000 pages of internal emails and consumer complaints reviewed by the Times/Herald trace a history of frustrated Trump University customers that covers a period of eight years and two attorneys general.
What these records show is that the fuse to what has become a national political firestorm was lit well before Bondi took office.
Bondi was an assistant state attorney in Tampa who had yet to publicly express interest in elected office when nearly two dozen people filed complaints with the Florida Attorney General’s office about two Trump-related enterprises.
The complaints started in 2008, filed by disgruntled customers who shelled out big money to Trump University and Trump Institute. Some said they lost their entire life savings.
Belinda Swain, a grandmother in Decatur, Ga., called Trump’s real estate seminars a “big, big lie.”
“They promised me I would be a successful real estate investor,” said Swain, a 77-year-old retired postal employee. Records show she was urged by seminar staffers to borrow money from her bank so she could keep paying fees.
Records from 2008 and 2009 show that the legal staff working for Bondi’s predecessor, Bill McCollum, routinely referred people to other agencies for help, including the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and Palm Beach County, home of the Trump Institute, the wealth seminar.
In a 2010 statement to the New York Daily News, a spokeswoman for McCollum said his office was “reviewing the complaints we have received” but insisted there was no investigation by the state into Trump Institute, which was in Boca Raton.
“There just weren’t that many complaints,” McCollum told the Times/Herald on Friday. “Twenty or so would never rise to that level of concern in the office, and there’s just not enough personnel in the economic crimes unit.”
As Bondi settled into her new job as Florida attorney general six years ago, her economic crimes unit was fielding new questions on an old issue: Trump University and its many unfulfilled promises of wealth.
The legal experts who showed scant interest in the cases under McCollum now worked for Bondi.
“I recall at one time having light discussion on devoting additional resources to these seminar cases,” wrote Liz Starr, a Bondi staffer, in an email on April 14, 2011, after NBC News asked the status of those complaints. “As far as responding to whether we have an inquiry, no, we don’t.”
The next month, Bondi received her first complaint about Trump University.
Charles Jacobson of Bradenton had lost more than $26,000 to the real estate seminars and had to declare bankruptcy.
Bondi, like McCollum before her, referred Jacobson to the New York attorney general’s office, which at the time was starting to investigate Trump University. He could also hire a private lawyer or surf the web for guidance.
“I encourage you to visit an Internet search engine such as http://www.yahoo.com,” Carmen James, a staffer in the Office of Citizen Services, told Jacobson. “Otherwise, you may want to consult an attorney.”
Jacobson and the others who filed complaints under McCollum were relying on Bondi’s office to take action. But Bondi, like McCollum, ran as an “extremely pro-business” Republican who preferred that companies resolve problems without legal action.
About 1,200 miles north, another state attorney general, this one a Democrat, was taking the opposite approach.
New York’s Eric Schneiderman not only tracked the complaints that came into his office about Trump University and its affiliates, but he sought complaints from other states.
When he filed a lawsuit on Aug. 25, 2013, he alleged the enterprises were “sham for profit colleges” that ripped off 5,000 consumers and sought $40 million in restitution. The New York suit cited eight Florida complaints.
It was at about this time that Bondi solicited and received the $25,000 contribution from Trump. Neither Bondi nor Trump have specified when they spoke, but both agree that it was Bondi who asked.
Trump signed the check, which was dated Sept. 9.
When Bondi accepted the check, an Orlando Sentinel reporter had already asked her staff about Schneiderman’s lawsuit and whether her office was interested in joining the suit. The Sept. 14 article quoted a Bondi spokeswoman saying the office was reviewing the allegations.
Three days later, Trump’s check was deposited in Bondi’s re-election campaign account.
On Sept. 27, Bondi’s office received its second complaint.
Harold Stevens, 52, of Interlachen, Fla., wrote in a handwritten complaint that Trump University continued to withdraw $50 from his bank account each month without his approval, and his checks began bouncing.
In an Oct. 10 reply, Bondi’s office said they would forward Stevens’ complaint to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. If that failed, he was told to hire a private lawyer “who can provide advice which our office is not at liberty to provide to private individuals.”
As a rule, Bondi’s office routinely forwards consumer complaints to DACS, Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said.
“Any insinuation that the Florida Attorney General’s Office does not protect consumers is completely without merit,” Ray said in an email.
Bondi’s office has said that she wasn’t involved in the decision not to investigate Trump University and that complaints against it were briefly reviewed by her staff.
But among thousands of internal emails released by Bondi’s office are conversations about Trump University by her top advisers, including then-Chief of Staff Carlos Muniz and Deputy Attorney General Trish Conners, in the weeks after Trump’s $25,000 check arrived.
“We need to find out more about the school here and why we keep getting these inquiries,” Conners wrote on Oct. 14, 2013.
When the office decided against any action is unclear. There is no date.
Five months after Conners told Stevens to look elsewhere for help, Trump hosted a fundraiser for Bondi at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, where her campaign raised an estimated $150,000.
Despite numerous phone calls and two visits to his home near Palatka, Stevens could not be contacted.
Jacobson, who complained in 2011 to Bondi’s office, couldn’t be reached this month. But in 2013, he told the Times/Herald that Trump’s contribution didn’t look right.
‘That’s probably why (Bondi) won’t do it,” Jacobson said, referring to an investigation.
Tallahassee lobbyist Brian Ballard, an ally of Bondi and Trump, said the controversy is overblown.
“He likes to support people he likes when he knows what they believe in,” said Ballard, who represents Trump’s interests at the Capitol and is a Trump fund-raiser. “Democrats are manipulating the facts. This story is contrived, and it’s going nowhere.”
But the controversy refuses to die, taking on a second life under the glare of the presidential race, where Trump and Hillary Clinton are now virtually tied.
At the beginning of the year, the contribution was a moot point. Bondi, 50, was an enthusiastic supporter of Jeb Bush.
But Bush dropped out in February.
On March 14, Bondi endorsed Trump, prompting fresh questions about the contribution. Two weeks after her endorsement, Bondi was pressed for details about the $25,000 following a Cabinet meeting.
She refused four times to answer questions about it.
“I’m going to let the accountants handle this,” Bondi said.
The Associated Press later revealed that Bondi solicited the contribution. It got more attention when the Washington Post reported earlier this month that Trump paid a $2,500 penalty to the IRS. Turns out that the check came from Trump’s nonprofit, which can’t legally contribute to political causes.
As the presidential race has reached the home stretch, the contribution is getting more attention than ever.
Democrats on the U.S. House Judiciary Committee asked the Department of Justice to investigate whether Trump bribed Bondi, and editorial boards, including the Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald, have done the same.
The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, funded by the liberal super PAC Keep America Great, wants the Justice Department and FBI to review Trump’s donation. The liberal watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) wants the IRS to take action, and a Massachusetts lawyer, J. Whitfield Larrabee, filed complaints with the Florida Commission on Ethics and Florida Elections Commission.
Bondi has become ever more reclusive. She routinely ignores requests for interviews, including three in recent weeks from the Times/Herald. Bondi was absent from last Monday’s annual Missing Children’s Day ceremony in the Capitol courtyard in Tallahassee, where a white folding chair marked “attorney general” was filled by an assistant as reporters hovered nearby.
Consumer advocates say lost in the political drama is the harm for-profit colleges can inflict.
“I would like to have seen her be more forceful generally on these for-profit colleges — all of them, not just Trump University,” said Alice Vickers of the non-profit Florida Alliance for Consumer Protection. “They’re all a huge problem.”
“They give you just so many days to get your money back, and by then, you don’t even know you’ve been scammed,” Patricia Murphy, 66, an elementary school teacher in the Bronx, said this week.
She was another Trump seminar customer who claims she lost $12,000. She complained to McCollum in 2009. She said she’s been unable to get back any of her money and hasn’t heard from Bondi’s office.
“I’m still waiting.”
Times researcher Caryn Baird and Palatka Daily News reporter Asia Aikins contributed to this report. Contact Michael Auslen at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @MichaelAuslen