The recent controversy over Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s solicitation of a $25,000 campaign contribution from Donald Trump at the time her office declined to pursue an investigation into Trump University raises legitimate questions in need of answers. This is especially true in light of Trump’s previous boasts that when he writes big checks to politicians “they do whatever the hell [he] asks them to.”
The facts seem clear. Bondi requested Trump’s support; Trump wrote a sizable check for $25,000; and Bondi’s office declined to pursue the same investigation being civilly prosecuted by the New York Attorney General.
In fairness to Bondi, it is not at all clear whether she knew the details of the investigation when the check was solicited, or whether it influenced her office’s decision. But it doesn’t have to. Bondi should have rejected the money, or returned it immediately upon learning that Trump was seeking an action — or in this case an inaction — from her office.
While an Attorney General attains an office through political means, it is paramount that it be administered free of any scent of politics. I spent nearly a decade as a federal prosecutor, mostly in the public corruption unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in South Florida. I spent the same amount of time as a state legislator where political fund-raising was a necessary fact of life.
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I’ve served in both worlds and know the difference between them.
Any prosecutor knows — and Pam Bondi was a prosecutor in Tampa before she ran for political office — that a prosecutor cannot be a politician when performing their law enforcement duties. An Attorney General commands an army of lawyers as well as the law enforcement community that often works at their direction. It is no different with civil enforcement cases whose purpose is to protect consumers from con men and fraudsters, of which Florida has more than its fair share.
Pleasing constituents, pursuing campaign contributions and reading polls should have nothing to do with how a prosecutor decides to direct the power of the state.
When political contributions seem entwined with official law enforcement actions no one should be surprised that the public wonders whether their interests are being lost in a mountain of campaign cash. This is unfortunate because it taints not just the decision of the office, but the many fine career attorneys who work there.
Political fund-raising is unavoidable for most candidates for elected office. Over the last decade, the campaign fun-draising laws — actually the lack of any real constraints on fund-raising — allow the wealthiest and most powerful people and companies to write enormous checks to candidates. This gives them outsized influence. Florida has seen this most notably in our governor’s mansion where it is not hard to follow the transactional nature of governance. Individuals and companies who have written five and even six figure amounts to Gov. Rick Scott seem to always get what they want. Everyone else has to hope they get noticed in the crowd.
But a prosecutor has an entirely different mission than a politician or even a private attorney. As Supreme Court Justice George Sutherland observed nearly a century ago, “The prosecutor is the representative not of an ordinary party to a controversy, but of a sovereignty whose obligation to govern impartially is as compelling as its obligation to govern at all.”
That is why an Attorney General needs to go to special lengths to keep fundraising far away from the duties of the office. Bondi — or any Attorney General — should simply not accept any campaign checks from any person or company with business before her office. If a potential contributor even raises an issue related to a pending potential matter, an ethical and perhaps criminal line has been crossed. And if you only learn after receiving the check of the pendency of a matter, give the money back. Or write a campaign check in the same amount to a charity thereby disgorging your campaign account of the benefit of the contribution.
Although I ran against Pam Bondi for the post and lost, we have always gotten along, notwithstanding our vastly different political views. I believe she knows better. Bondi ought to invite an outside, independent review of her office’s decision-making. It may well be that not pursuing the matter was the right thing to do — but the presence of a $25,000 check from Trump, and his boasts that he manipulates politicians with campaign cash, makes that conclusion far less credible.
Dan Gelber is a former Florida State Senator and Democratic House Leader.