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Charitable views

| Friday, January 18, 2019

Some years ago, after decades in the impenetrable thicket of corporate law, I found myself at a dark and worrisome place. I questioned whether my efforts and talents were being used for good, especially after the pursuit of financial rewards led to a series of lucrative but unsatisfying jobs. I consulted with family and friends about my next move, and even wrote a letter seeking the advice of Henry Cisneros, former mayor of San Antonio, Texas, and Housing and Urban Development secretary under President Clinton. To my surprise, Cisneros graciously responded with a lengthy letter. He commiserated regarding my professional frustrations and had a concrete suggestion for more fulfilling employment: Work for a charitable organization.

An opportunity with one of the national medical non-profits (of which there are many — think major organs and diseases) opened up soon thereafter, and I went to work for a well-respected charity. To be clear, a large bureaucracy, whether it is a university, a corporation or a charity, always has its challenges. If you work for a charity, you still will have a boss, annual reviews, parking and commuting woes, and all the usual trappings of working life, but you will occasionally also feel your work makes a real difference and does not just enrich executives and shareholders. You will also discover a legitimate charity has to follow certain rules and ethical standards to earn public trust and tax-free status for itself and its donors.

With that prologue, let me now address the work and legacies of two charities and a stark lesson in false equivalency. The Trump Foundation launched in 1988 with a board of directors including Trump family members Donald Sr., Eric, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Trump Organization CEO Allen Weisselberg (who received immunity and is currently cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office). The charity has no offices or staff, and its board has not met since 1999. Donald Trump Sr. hasn’t made a donation to this charity since 2008. Charity Navigator, a rating service for charities, has given the foundation a “high advisory” warning as a bad risk for contributions.  

New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood began investigating the Trump Foundation after learning of questionable spending by the charity, including renovating a fountain outside Trump’s Plaza hotel, buying two large portraits of Trump that were displayed at Trump properties and settling personal or business legal disputes. Actions ranged from the blatantly illegal (a $25,000 foundation check to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi around the time she was considering whether to open a fraud probe into Trump University) to the pitifully paltry (a $7 check to the Boy Scouts for then-11-year-old Donald Trump Jr.’s enrollment fee). In June 2018, Underwood filed suit seeking to close down the foundation due to “persistently illegal conduct.” The Trump family has since announced it will shut down the foundation and distribute any remaining funds to legitimate charities. 

Another foundation operating out of New York City, the Clinton Foundation, has received considerably more scrutiny over the years than the Trump Foundation. The Clinton Foundation has established programs that help farmers, workers, women and school children around the world, including the United States, earning four out of four stars on Charity Navigator. Public health authorities credit it with saving millions of people threatened by HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and other diseases. The foundation board includes Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton — none sanctioned for a misuse of foundation funds.

Due in large part to efforts orchestrated by Steve Bannon’s Breitbart, many Americans believe the Clinton Foundation is no better than Trump’s faux charity. Using funds from the Mercer family, Bannon oversaw the production of the sensational and largely fictional book, “Clinton Cash.” The book’s author even featured the book’s “research” in a New York Times story suggesting Hillary Clinton had engineered approval of a uranium sale to Russia for the benefit of foundation donors. 

The since-discredited Times story ran in 2015, around the time Clinton declared her presidential candidacy. From then until November 2016, news coverage of the Clinton Foundation mainly consisted of gossip, stolen emails and any other stray nonsense that advanced the negative story, mostly found in the “birther” and Russian-bot corners of the internet.   

The Clinton Foundation’s size, international presence and large funding — all necessitated by its global efforts — have been fodder for conspiracy enthusiasts. Despite the persistent attacks, the Clinton Foundation continues performing its work in good standing as a legitimate charity.

The lawsuit Underwood filed against the Trump Foundation and its board of directors seeks restitution of $2.8 million and additional penalties. Despite the Trumps closing the foundation, this case is ongoing.  One final example from the Trump Foundation files is informative on a number of levels. In 2012, Martin Greenberg aced a par three at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, during a hole-in-one contest. The club denied Greenberg the $1 million prize, and he sued.

The Trump Foundation subsequently organized a “charity” auction for a life membership at a Trump golf club, with proceeds to “benefit the Donald J. Trump Foundation.” The money raised — $157,250 — actually went to help settle Greenberg’s case, in violation of federal and state law. What kind of scoundrel would come up with such an illegal and deceptive scheme? The contract with the website that hosted the ersatz charitable auction was signed on behalf of the foundation by then-attorney and “fixer” for Donald Trump, Michael Cohen. The Trumps have diminished many of America’s once-trusted institutions, but surely the greatest of these is charity.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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