State Politics

Pam Bondi silent on questions about $25,000 Trump donation

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi speaks to Donald Trump supporters during a campaign rally at the Entertainment Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi speaks to Donald Trump supporters during a campaign rally at the Entertainment Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds in Tampa, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. AP/Tampa Bay Times

Three years after Donald Trump contributed $25,000 to the re-election campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, the controversy continues to captivate.

It jumped this week from national newspapers and cable news shows to glossies like Vanity Fair and entertainment outlets like MTV.

Yet Bondi remains mum on her starring role.

She’s evaded questions about her relationship with the Republican nominee for president, refusing interviews and ignoring text messages. A one-time Fox News regular, she has kept her public appearances to a minimum as questions about “pay-for-play” mount.

While Bondi’s office this week answered unrelated questions posed by the Herald/Times, it took two days for her office to respond to questions related to Trump’s contribution. And even then, some responses didn’t come close to providing answers.

This is what is known about what the New Yorker now calls “The Scandal that Won’t Go Away.”

The Trump Foundation in 2013 gave $25,000 to And Justice for All, a political committee controlled by Bondi. Weeks before the donation, New York’s attorney general filed a lawsuit alleging that Trump University and its affiliates had ripped off 5,000 unsuspecting customers.

The Florida Attorney General’s office had also received complaints about Trump University but never investigated. In an email Thursday, a spokesman for the office, Whitney Ray, conceded that a staff member had “briefly reviewed” the New York lawsuit in 2013.

“The matter never rose to the attorney general’s level for any decision of any kind,” Ray said.

But pressed for the name of the staffer who reviewed the Trump University allegations, Ray directed reporters to a file of more than 9,000 pages, offering no further assistance.

Trump’s campaign claims the two “have a great relationship and have for many years.” Yet basic questions about the nature of that relationship go unanswered.

When did they first meet? How did they meet? Do they socialize?

Ray’s response: “The Attorney General is unavailable for an interview.”

The controversy doesn’t look good, said Mac Stipanovich, a veteran Florida Republican consultant and outspoken #NeverTrump activist.

“The optics on this are terrible, there’s just no question about that,” Stipanovich said. “I don’t think she or Donald Trump would deny that.”

Since Bondi took office in 2011, she hasn’t been the most accessible elected official.

Her official calendars typically don’t disclose her whereabouts, who is meeting with her, or the topics being discussed. Public events, where reporters might be able to ask her a question or two, are rare.

In June, Bondi’s office released 18 weeks of her official calendar to the Herald/Times, but it had numerous gaps where nothing was listed.

Even when entries were listed, Bondi’s schedule does little to explain how she spent her time as the state’s top law enforcement official. On 36 of the 90 work days released to the Herald/Times, the lone entry was “staff & call time” with no further elaboration. From week to week, it’s not clear how she’s putting in 40 hours.

Late Wednesday, two new complaints sought to clarify the circumstances surrounding Trump’s contribution.

One, filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by the Democratic Coalition Against Trump, asserts that Trump’s contribution to Bondi violated federal anti-bribery laws.

The second complaint by Massachusetts lawyer J. Whitfield Larrabee says Trump gave an unreported contribution to Bondi by making his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach available for a fundraiser at a rate considerably lower than he charged his presidential campaign this year.

Still, Bondi’s silence may yet be golden, Stipanovich said.

Stories about whether donors have influence over the politicians they support are common and often forgotten, he said, though this one is undeniably higher profile because of Trump’s presidential campaign.

And it boomerangs.

It was in the news in 2013 when Trump made the donation. It made headlines again this March when Bondi endorsed Trump’s presidential run at a rally in Tampa. And it’s back in the news this week after national news organizations resurrected the story.

“I am in doubt that there’s anything she could say that would put this to rest,” Stipanovich said. “If that is indeed the case, why would she participate in giving [reporters] a new lead every day?”

Herald/Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.

Contact Michael Auslen at mauslen@tampabay.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.

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