Aides to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump said this week that his charitable foundation made a mistake when it donated $25,000 to a political committee backing Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, a potential violation of federal rules prohibiting charities from aiding political candidates.
The Donald J. Trump Foundation compounded the error by not listing its 2013 gift to the pro-Bondi group, And Justice for All, in its filings with the IRS that year, the aides said. But the charity listed a $25,000 donation to an unrelated group with a similar name, Justice for All. But that group, a Wichita-based nonprofit, said it never received any money from the foundation.
Such an admission of error from the campaign is itself relatively unusual, because Trump has built his campaign on a distaste for apologies.
Trump’s campaign spokeswoman and the treasurer of his foundation said they were unaware of the charity’s mistakes until Monday, when they were notified that a left-leaning watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed a complaint with the IRS.
Both said there was no intent to deceive the IRS, and they blamed the problems on a series of clerical errors.
“All these years, we had no idea anything happened,” said Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of the Trump Organization and the longtime treasurer of Trump’s foundation.
Weisselberg said Trump’s accountants would contact the IRS on Tuesday to “straighten it out.”
The donation to Bondi’s group by Trump’s foundation, a charity that the billionaire businessman created in the 1980s, was controversial because it came as Bondi was reviewing whether to investigate fraud allegations against Trump University, a real-estate-seminar business affiliated with the front-runner.
Bondi, a Republican who was preparing for her 2014 reelection, never took action against Trump University.
When questions arose at the time, the group and Trump defended the donation.
The treasurer of the pro-Bondi And Justice for All, Nancy Watkins, told the Tampa Bay Times at the time that the group was “comfortable with the propriety of the contribution from the Trump Foundation.” Trump told the paper then that Bondi “is a fabulous representative of the people – Florida is lucky to have her.”
The foundation’s gift to Bondi gained renewed attention in recent days after Bondi endorsed Trump before this year’s Florida GOP primary, on March 15. Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump’s campaign, said that it had been unaware that Trump’s foundation made the erroneous political gift.
“The campaign wasn’t in existence” when the 2013 donation was made, Hicks said. “The campaign had no knowledge of this.”
IRS rules say that nonprofit foundations, like Trump’s, are “absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign.” If an organization is found to have violated that rule, the result could be a loss of nonprofit status. The penalty for sending false information to the IRS can be more severe.
CREW, the watchdog group, was the first to note publicly that Trump’s foundation reported a donation to the Kansas-based Justice for All – and not to the pro-Bondi group with a similar name.
A spokeswoman for the Kansas group, which trains antiabortion activists, confirmed to The Washington Post that it had not received the money.
Jordan Libowitz, a CREW spokeswoman, said the IRS “needs to investigate and determine where the truth lies.”
“It appears they gave an illegal political donation, told the IRS they didn’t give a political donation, claimed it was made to a similarly named permissible group instead – and now they’re saying it’s an error?” Libowitz said.
An IRS spokesman declined to comment, citing federal privacy laws that prohibit disclosure of information about any individual taxpayer.
The explanation from Trump aides on Monday underscored the extent to which Trump’s foundation is managed largely by the same people who help run his business empire and make decisions about his personal funds.
Weisselberg, the foundation’s treasurer, said the mistakes began with an accounts-payable clerk at the Trump Organization.
The clerk received a request for payment, Weisselberg said, in the name of Bondi’s group, And Justice For All. Then, the clerk had to decide whether the check would come from Trump’s charity or his personal funds.
The clerk had a standing order to consult a reference book, Weisselberg said.
“In that book, it lists all the bona-fide charities, so we went to that book and in that book, sure enough, is And Justice for All,” Weisselberg said.
That was a mistake, he said, but the clerk didn’t know it.
The listing she’d found for And Justice For All was actually for another nonprofit with the same name, located in Utah. So the clerk, Weisselberg said, wrote a check for that name, drawn from the charitable foundation’s funds.
If the clerk knew that the check was meant for a political group, Weisselberg said, “we would have taken it out of [Trump’s] own personal account.”
“We had 99.9999 percent of them perfect, and this is the one,” he added.
The clerk wrote the check, but it didn’t go to the Utah group. The And Justice for All organization in Utah, which helps poor people and those with disabilities navigate the legal system, told The Washington Post that the group received no funds from Trump.
Weisselberg could not explain how the money got to Bondi’s group.
“The check got cut, and after that, I don’t know exactly where it ended up,” he said.
“It must have gone, I guess, to Pam Bondi,” Weisselberg said. “We spoke to our accountants, our tax attorneys in Washington, and they say these things happen all the time.”
The next mistake, Weisselberg said, was made by Trump’s accounting firm.
When compiling the foundation’s donations for 2013, they did not list a donation to either of the two groups called “And Justice For All.”
Instead, they listed a $25,000 donation to “Justice For All,” in Kansas.
“From what I’m told, they had a typographical mistake on the return. . . . Somehow, someone who typed up the return for that year, put Justice For All,” Weisselberg said.
A message left for Trump’s paid tax preparer was not immediately returned.