NEW YORK –
The New York attorney general said his three-year investigation of former President Donald Trump uncovered potential crimes in the way he ran his real estate empire, including allegations of bank and insurance fraud.
So why isn’t Trump being prosecuted?
Attorney General Letitia James did not seek to handcuff the Republican this week, as some of her critics had hoped. Instead, she announced a civil suit seeking US$250 million and her permanent ban from doing business in the state.
Like many things involving the law and Trump, the reasons James, a Democrat, opted for a trial over prosecution are complicated.
For one thing, even if she wanted to sue Trump, she has no jurisdiction under state law to bring a criminal action against him or any of the other defendants in the lawsuit, including the Trump Organization. and her three oldest children, Donald Jr., Ivanka and Eric Trump.
In New York, the state attorney general’s office is only authorized to prosecute a limited number of offenses, such as bid-rigging and payroll violations.
Otherwise, the office must partner with a county district attorney in a lawsuit — as James’s office did with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in a case against the chief financial officer of longtime Trump — or get what’s called a criminal reference from the governor or a state agency. who has jurisdiction over the alleged wrongdoing.
Even then, mounting a criminal fraud case is much more difficult than a civil suit.
In a criminal case, prosecutors would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Trump intended to commit a crime. In the trial – if it does go to trial – the jurors would only have to be persuaded that it was more likely than not that wrongdoing had taken place.
Taking civil action while letting others deal with potential criminal violations is a good strategy, legal experts said, allowing James to seek remedies other than jail.
This allows the attorney general to avoid the kind of internal debate over criminal charges that fractured the Manhattan District Attorney’s parallel investigation of Trump earlier this year.
No former US president has ever been charged with a crime.
The prospect of Trump, 76, behind bars following a criminal prosecution could make juries think twice, make judges more cautious and make victory more difficult, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.
“Even for Trump, people don’t like him, but do they want to put him out?” said Tobias. “What would it take? What kind of punishment would be appropriate? So it’s just more difficult.
A civil case, given its lower burden of proof standard, is “much easier to mount … and probably win,” Tobias said.
Trump, a Republican setting the stage for another presidential election in 2024, derided James as “a fraudster who campaigned on a ‘get Trump’ platform.”
In a Wednesday night interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity, Trump suggested his company had protected itself from potential fraud allegations by warning banks and potential business partners not to trust information in his disclosures. financial.
“We have a disclaimer right at the start,” Trump said. “‘You are at your own risk.’ … “Be careful because it may not be accurate. It may be far.” … “Get your own staff. Use your own evaluators. Use your own lawyers. Don’t count on us.”
James told a news conference on Wednesday that his office is referring its findings to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan and the Internal Revenue Service, and will share evidence of possible violations of state law with the office. from the Manhattan District Attorney, if requested.
The US Attorney’s Office in Manhattan said it was aware of James’ referral of potential criminal charges, but otherwise declined to comment. The Internal Revenue Service’s Criminal Investigations Division said it “does not confirm the existence of any investigations until court documents are made public.”
Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said his investigation into Trump is “active and ongoing.”
The former prosecutor who led Bragg’s investigation, Mark Pomerantz, resigned in February because he believed the office should move more quickly to bring criminal charges against Trump.
In a resignation letter, Pomerantz wrote that he believed the former president was “guilty of numerous criminal violations.”
He said he told Bragg there was “sufficient evidence to establish Mr. Trump’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt” of many of the same allegations that now appear in James’s trial – including that Trump falsified financial statements to secure loans and boost his image as a wealthy businessman.
If there is no settlement agreement, James’s lawsuit against Trump could take years to unfold and may not be resolved until the 2024 presidential election.
A fraud lawsuit James filed against the National Rifle Association recently entered its third year, slowed by legal wrangling and attempts by the powerful gun advocacy group to have the case dismissed. No trial date has been set.
Protracted legal proceedings could hurt Trump’s business by making lenders and potential partners reluctant to make deals. But, if history is any guide, it’s unlikely to be a blow. Against all odds, and despite numerous legal battles in recent years, the company was able to obtain new loans and raise funds.
In February, the Trump Organization secured $100 million from a California bank to refinance commercial and retail space at its Trump Tower headquarters. The deal came just three days after Trump’s longtime accountants Mazurs disavowed a decade of financial statements he helped prepare – a serious blow to his business reputation.
The big loan also came after the Trump Organization was previously charged with fraud by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for allegedly helping executives evade taxes. That case is expected to go to trial next month.
Another recent victory for Trump as his legal troubles pile up: the sale of his Washington DC hotel for $375 million, far more than expected.
Several credit experts said the new loan shows why much of Trump’s business is shielded from his political and legal storms: What matters most in real estate is the money spent by the rent and building security, not the reputation of the landlord.
Associated Press reporters Larry Neumeister, Bobby Caina Calvan and Jill Colvin in New York and Fatima Hussein in Washington contributed to this report.
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