by Ben Schreckinger
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If Donald Trump’s claims that certain of his commercial ventures benefit charity are untrue, he could be held liable under Section 349 of New York’s General Business Law, which forbids deceptive business acts and practices, as well as under charitable solicitation laws, according to legal experts.
In promoting products as varied as Trump University, Trump Vodka, a Trump board game and his latest book, “Crippled America,” the businessman has declared that the proceeds would go to charity. None of Trump’s proceeds from Trump University have gone to charity, and only a few hundred dollars of charitable giving related to Trump Vodka has been accounted for. News organizations have been unable to verify his other claims, and his representatives have been unwilling to provide more information about them or even to confirm them.
While lawyers say Trump could be liable in a number of states for false claims, the official most likely to take up the matter would be Attorney General Eric Schneiderman of New York, where Trump resides and is already the defendant in a consumer fraud case brought by the state over Trump University.
Referring to Trump’s claims about his “Crippled America” book profits, a spokesman for Schneiderman’s office said that the law against deceptive business practices was a more likely avenue of pursuit than the charitable solicitation law. But he added that lawyers at the attorney general’s office had not yet decided whether to look into the matter.
In recent weeks, Trump has come under fire for exaggerating the amount of money he raised for veterans at a campaign event in January and for donating much of that money only after reporters began asking questions about it. A state AG investigation of Trump’s other claims of charitable giving would keep the issue alive and burden the presumptive Republican nominee — already embroiled in a number of lawsuits — with another legal headache.
At least one congressman from New York says Schneiderman should investigate Trump’s claims about “Crippled America.”
“To the extent jurisdiction exists, it seems appropriate that the attorney general should examine whether Trump’s fraudulent schemes extend to his book-promotion activity,” Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries told POLITICO.
Neither Trump campaign spokeswoman Hope Hicks, nor Alan Garten, general counsel of the Trump Organization, responded to multiple requests for comment.
At an October campaign stop in Iowa, Trump plugged the upcoming release of the book, saying, “With everything else I’m writing books. This was the last thing. But it was a lot of money that’s going to go to charity, and frankly, I think the title is amazing.”
That same day, Trump’s director of social media, Dan Scavino, tweeted, “Proceeds of @realDonaldTrump's book, ‘Crippled America’ (coming soon) will be going to charity. #Trump2016 #MakeAmericaGreatAgain.” Scavino did not respond to a request for comment.
At a press conference tied to the book’s release at Trump Tower in New York last November, Trump said, “The profits of my book? I’m giving them away to a lot of different people, including the vets.”
So far, Trump has made somewhere from $1 million to $5 million in royalties on the book, according to a personal financial disclosure filed last month with the FEC, but Hicks did not respond to repeated questions about whether any of the proceeds went to charity and no donation has been publicized.
If Trump fails to follow through on the statements made by him and his employee, he could be running afoul of the law, according to James Fishman, an emeritus professor of law at Pace University with expertise in non-profit organizations. “In terms of promising to give money to charities, that can be looked at as fraud if he has gotten people to contribute on that basis,” Fishman said.
The charity claims made their way into numerous news reports, social media posts and online reader reviews of the book. “Thank You For Donating Proceeds To Vet Charities!!!” reads the subject line of one review on Amazon. “Proceeds to charity GREAT BOOK!” proclaims another.
A Facebook page set up to promote the book includes a post that reads, "’I just started reading this and it is a great book already and I'm glad you are donating the proceeds to charity!’ - Joe (Unsolicited Amazon Testimonial).”
A Trump fan Facebook group promoted a link for pre-ordering the book this way: “Trump has just went live with the ‘pre-orders’ of his brand new book, 'Crippled America'!! Trumps campaign manager also confirmed that the proceeds for the book go directly to CHARITY! Support the cause, get educated, and help us MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN! Secure your copy by pre-ordering today.”
“In general you can’t promote a book by saying the benefits will go to charity when that’s false, and that’s where general consumer protection laws would come in,” said Dan Kurtz, a former assistant attorney general of New York in charge of the state’s Charities Bureau.
Kurtz added that Trump might also be subject to New York’s charitable solicitation laws. Those regulations generally apply to instances where a business markets its goods as benefiting a particular charitable organization, but Kurtz said Trump’s vaguer marketing claims arguably also fall under that law as well.
Kurtz said that the book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, might be “on the hook” as well for claims Trump made. A spokesman for the publisher declined to comment on the record.
“Crippled America” is not the only money-making venture that Trump has publicized as benefiting charity. He has also claimed that proceeds or profits from Trump University, Trump Vodka, “The Art of the Deal” and a Trump board game would benefit charity.
Promoting Trump Vodka in 2006, Trump told Larry King, “I'm giving the money to charity.” But the only apparent donation related to Trump Vodka is a “few hundred dollars” given to a group supporting Walter Reed Hospital in connection with a specific promotion, as reported by CNN last month.
Trump marketed Trump University as a charitable venture and said he would give any money he made off of it to charity, but he has not given money from it to charity, as Time reported in November. Trump’s lawyer told Time that the New York billionaire transferred the $5 million he made from Trump University, which is embroiled in multiple fraud lawsuits, back to the business when it landed in legal trouble.
Kurtz said that while older marketing claims of charitable giving, if false, might be too stale to pursue on their own, they would be relevant to more recent cases, like that of “Crippled America.”
“If somebody could demonstrate there’s a pattern, even if the claims themselves aren’t actionable, it shows the propensity to do it,” he said. “It reinforces the case.”