ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York state tax officials have opened an investigation into the Trump Foundation to determine whether President Donald Trump or his charity violated state law.
The probe into whether the Republican president or his foundation committed any violations or made misrepresentations to the state with respect to tax liability began about a month ago. It was confirmed Thursday to The Associated Press by an official with knowledge of the case. The official was not authorized to speak publicly about active investigations and spoke of condition of anonymity.
If evidence of alleged crimes is found, the matter could be referred to prosecutors, who could pursue criminal charges and seek the release of Trump’s tax returns.
“For the Trump Foundation, the law is the law. It doesn’t matter who you are, the law is the law,” Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday in response to questions about the probe.
The investigation, first reported by The New York Times, follows Democratic state Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s lawsuit alleging Trump illegally tapped his Trump Foundation to settle legal disputes, help his campaign for president and pay for personal and business expenses, which included spending $10,000 on a six-foot portrait of himself.
The attorney general’s office is seeking $2.8 million in restitution and other unspecified penalties in its civil suit. It said that it had referred to its findings to the IRS and the Federal Election Commission for possible further action.
The White House has dismissed the lawsuit as politically motivated and Trump has called the case “ridiculous,” tweeting “I won’t settle this case!”
A criminal investigation would allow state prosecutors to broaden their probe, a jump in authority that often requires a referral from the governor or a state agency.
The attorney general’s office said Wednesday that it wasn’t ruling out seeking broader authority, but that criminal probes related to taxes often involve tax evasion, which the president is not accused of. It also said a shift to a criminal probe could help efforts by Trump lawyers to get a judge to delay the civil case.
“As our lawsuit against the Trump Foundation illustrates, we intend to hold the Foundation and its directors accountable for all violations of state law,” said spokeswoman Amy Spitalnick. “We continue to evaluate the evidence to determine what additional actions may be warranted, and will seek a criminal referral from the appropriate state agency as necessary.”
Trump said during his campaign that he couldn’t release his federal tax returns because he was being audited, though experts and Internal Revenue Service officials have said such audits don’t bar taxpayers from releasing their returns.
Cuomo will grant Underwood the power to pursue a criminal investigation if she requests it, his administration announced Wednesday.
The president is fighting two other lawsuits that could force him to release his returns, both alleging that he has violated a constitutional ban on accepting foreign government payments in allowing diplomats and other government representatives to hold parties and stay at his hotels. Trump’s lawyers say the constitution’s so-called emoluments clause does not apply to normal business transactions requiring payment for services.
Democratic lawmakers also have introduced legislation that would require the state to release five years of tax information for any president or vice president who files a New York state return. Another bill would require any presidential candidate to release his or her tax returns as a requirement to appear on the state ballot.
Neither bill received a full vote.