It's been about a week since the New York attorney general's office accused Donald Trump's charitable foundation of being little more than a slush fund, which, among other things, made illegal in-kind contributions for Trump's campaign. As the process moves forward, it's worth considering just how serious the allegations are.
Marcus Owens, who used to lead the IRS division on tax-exempt organizations during the Bush and Clinton administrations, told the New York Times the other day that people have faced criminal prosecutions for circumstances like these. The difference, Owens said, is that those other cases were "less egregious" than Trump's.
Yesterday, CNN's Chris Cillizza published a related interview with Owens, in which the former IRS official elaborated on this point.
[T]he Trump Foundation may be unique in the variety and scope of its transgressions of state and federal law, as well as the visibility of the transgressions. [...]In fact, while my years at the IRS brought me into contact with many charities and foundations that had violated federal tax law, few approached the variety of the Trump Foundation's transgressions.
In the interest of disclosure, I should probably mention that I had several conversations with Owens many years ago, and I can say with direct experience that he's not prone to exaggeration or wild accusations. He's a very mild-mannered, non-political guy.
So when Owens says the president's foundation may have flouted the law, it's worth pausing to take note.
Asked about possible defenses from Trump and his team, Owens added, "In my opinion, there are no effective defenses that Donald Trump and/or his foundation can deploy to either the attorney general's petition or to federal tax charges. About the best he can do is plead ignorance of the law (generally ineffective with the sort of allegations being made) and to try to shift the blame to his accountants and attorneys (which will be factually difficult given Trump's personal involvement in many of the actions. It's unlikely, for example, that one of Trump's attorneys or accountants said that it is fine to contribute to the Florida attorney general's PAC or to buy a painting of himself and hang it in one of his clubs.)."
George Conway, an attorney who happens to be married to White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway, added the other day, in reference to the claims made against the Trump Foundation, "These are obviously very serious allegations, and they should be referred to the United States Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York."
In other words, Conway sees the allegations as possibly worthy of federal criminal prosecution.
A day earlier, Philip Hackney, who was an attorney for the chief counsel of the IRS specializing in nonprofit organizations, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times that also argued that the IRS should investigate the Trump Foundation for "egregious" criminal violations.
Remember, when New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed suit against the president's foundation, she also referred her finding to the Internal Revenue Service, the Federal Election Commission, and the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section, which is charged with investigating and prosecuting criminal violations of election laws.
I realize there's a lot going on right now, but this scandal poses a real political threat to Trump and his family, and it's not going away anytime soon.