Guest Opinion: Questions about the Trump Foundation
Universities that offer a major in nonprofit management have just gotten a gift from the Donald J. Trump Foundation. Not money, but a rich case study — in how not to run a foundation. The latest symptom of the organization’s alarming deficiencies came when the attorney general of New York ordered it to stop raising funds in that state because it never registered to do so, as the law requires.
This may sound like a minor paperwork lapse. But not registering, something required of any charitable group that solicits more than $25,000, spares it from thorough outside audits — which are an important safeguard for those who contribute. In this case, that protection seems overdue and badly needed.
There are some odd things about the Trump Foundation. One is that its immensely wealthy founder has contributed nothing to it since 2008. Many of the personal contributions Trump has bragged about in speeches were actually contributions from his foundation.
Another is that it got busted for making a political contribution. A check for $25,000 went to the campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi — who at the time was investigating allegations of fraud against Trump University. She eventually closed the case without action. When the forbidden donation came to light, Trump had to pay a fine to the IRS.
Perhaps more disturbing are episodes in which Trump apparently spent foundation funds to buy things he wanted or to settle legal battles. This is known as self-dealing, and it’s not allowed. It basically means someone is using tax-free funds given for a charitable purpose to benefit himself or his companies, not to help those in need.
The foundation spent a total of $30,000 on two portraits of the tycoon and $12,000 on a football helmet signed by former Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. One of the portraits was later found in the Champions Bar and Grill in Trump Doral, a Florida golf resort — which is not known to provide beds for the homeless.
Trump also spent some $258,000 to resolve lawsuits against his golf courses. “I represent 700 nonprofits a year, and I’ve never encountered anything so brazen,” Washington lawyer Jeffrey Tenenbaum told The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold. “If he’s using other people’s money — run through his foundation — to satisfy his personal obligations, then that’s about as blatant an example of self-dealing (as) I’ve seen in awhile.”
Trump has been known to promise more than he delivers. At a January event to solicit money for veterans, he claimed to have raised $6 million, but he later said the real figure was $5.6 million, and he initially declined to say where the funds went. He promised to kick in $1 million of his own funds, but he didn’t follow through until four months later, after the news media pressed him about it.
We have faulted Hillary Clinton for lax conflict-of-interest policies that let donors to her family’s foundation receive special treatment from the State Department during her time as secretary. But at least the Clinton Foundation gets high ratings from charity watchdogs for efficiency and transparency.
Each of these incidents involving Trump raises important questions about the mission, value and integrity of his foundation. The candidate owes voters some answers.