Reports: Federal prosecutors probe Trump inaugural committee

Associated Press
In this Jan. 20, 2017, file photo President Donald Trump, center, raises his fist alongside first lady Melania Trump, left, and son Donald Trump, Jr., after dancing at the Liberty Ball following his inauguration in Washington.

New York – Federal prosecutors are reportedly investigating the finances of President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee and whether foreigners contributed to its events using straw donors.

The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that prosecutors in New York are investigating whether some of the committee’s donors made contributions in exchange for political favors and access to the Trump administration– a potential violation of federal corruption laws. The inquiry, which the newspaper said is in its early stages, is also focused on whether the inauguration committee misspent some of the $107 million it raised to stage events celebrating Trump’s inauguration.

The New York Times reported that prosecutors are examining whether people from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries made illegal payments to the committee and a pro-Trump super political action committee in a bid to influence American policy. Foreign contributions to inaugural funds and PACs are prohibited under federal law.

Both newspapers cited anonymous sources familiar with the inquiry.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The inaugural committee said it has not been contacted by federal prosecutors and is not aware of any investigations.

The committee “staged a celebration of our democratic processes and did so in full compliance with all applicable laws and disclosure obligations,” it said Friday in a statement to The Associated Press.

“The inauguration’s accounting was provided both to the Federal Election Commission and the IRS in compliance with all laws and regulations,” it said. “These were funds raised from private individuals and were then spent in accordance with the law and the expectations of the donors.”

It added that the names of donors were given to the election commission and have been public for nearly two years. It said the donors were vetted and no improprieties were found.

White House spokesman Hogan Gidley was asked by reporters Friday if there were any “improprieties” with the inauguration funding.

“The president of the United States has one job at the inauguration. It’s to show up, to thank everyone for the service to get him elected, and then also dance with the first lady,” Gidley said in response. “He did all of those things. This charge has nothing to do with the president of the United States, and it has nothing to do with this administration.”

The investigation marks the latest potential threat to the president and people in his inner circle. The Times and Wall Street Journal reported that it stemmed in part from materials the FBI seized earlier this year while probing the business dealings of Michael Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer and personal attorney. Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison this week for tax evasion and campaign-finance violations.

The newspapers reported that an FBI search of Cohen’s office and home last spring uncovered a recorded conversation between the lawyer and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to Melania Trump who ran companies that were paid $26 million by the inaugural committee. On the recording, Winston Wolkoff reportedly criticized the president of the inaugural fund, Tom Barrack, over its management.

Spokesman Owen Blicksilver told The Times that Barrack “has never talked with any foreign individual or entity for the purposes of raising money for or obtaining donations related to either the campaign, the inauguration or any such political activity.”

Winston Wolkoff did not immediately return a voicemail left at her Manhattan home.

Prosecutors also are probing the finances of Rebuilding America Now, a pro-Trump super PAC that raised $23 million, according to The Times. The newspaper reported that federal prosecutors in New York and from the office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller have questioned witnesses over whether anyone from Middle Eastern countries contributed to the committee.

The Journal also reported that prosecutors have requested documents from a Tennessee developer relating to a $1 million contribution he made to the inaugural committee in December 2016. The developer, Franklin Haney, hired Cohen to help secure a $5 billion loan from the Energy Department for a nuclear-power project, the newspaper reported.

Attorneys for Haney and Cohen declined to comment.

The inquiry is not the first time prosecutors have scrutinized Trump’s inauguration. Earlier this year, Sam Patten, a well-known Republican lobbyist, pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent for a Ukrainian political party and admitted to lining up a straw purchaser to pay $50,000 for four tickets to the inauguration.

Patten is a business associate and co-defendant of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.