The lawsuit against President Donald Trump and his charitable foundation will move forward after a state Supreme Court justice in Manhattan rejected a motion to dismiss from the president’s legal team on Friday.
Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Saliann Scarpulla wrote in a decision rejecting the motion that claims of political bias brought by Trump’s attorneys were not enough to persuade her that the matter should not be litigated.
“Given the very serious allegations set forth in the petition, I find that there is no basis for finding that animus and bias were the sole motivating factors for initiating the investigation and pursuing this proceeding,” Scarpulla wrote.
Alan Futerfas, an attorney from Manhattan representing the Trump Foundation and its founder, had argued in recent filings that the lawsuit should be dismissed because former Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who launched the investigation into the foundation, had presented a clear political bias against Trump and should have recused himself.
Schneiderman, at one point, even solicited campaign donations based on his opposition to Trump, Futerfas argued. Schneiderman has since resigned amid domestic abuse allegations, but current Attorney General Barbara Underwood has been equally supportive of the investigation into, and litigation against, the Trump Foundation. The lawsuit was filed just weeks after she took office.
Futerfas had argued that the attorney general’s office singled out Trump and his foundation because of his candidacy for president, and then his position in the White House. Underwood rebutted that argument in a statement on Friday welcoming Scarpulla’s decision.
“As we detailed in our petition earlier this year, the Trump Foundation functioned as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests,” Underwood said. “There are rules that govern private foundations—and we intend to enforce them, no matter who runs the foundation. We welcome Justice Scarpulla’s decision, which allows our suit to move forward.”
When reached by email on Friday, Futerfas’ answer indicated he was unfazed by Scarpulla’s decision.
“The decision means only that the case goes forward,” Futerfas said. “As we have maintained throughout, all of the money raised by the Foundation went to charitable causes to assist those most in need. As a result, we remain confident in the ultimate outcome of these proceedings.”
The lawsuit is partly over a fundraiser the Trump Foundation held in 2016 during the Republican primary for president. The event, which was held days before the Iowa caucuses, raised millions for veterans groups. Half of the amount was donated to organizations directly by users through a website. The other half—$2.8 million—was either distributed immediately after the event or at the direction of Trump or his campaign.
Scarpulla questioned the legality of the foundation’s operations with the latter amount in her decision on Friday, saying the way those assets were distributed after the fundraiser were worthy of judicial review.
“Petitioner alleges there that the Foundation’s funds were disbursed improperly, even though the funds may have ultimately ended up with charitable organizations,” Scarpulla wrote. “Thus, for example, Petitioner claims that the Individual Respondents ceded control over the Foundation’s assets to the campaign and failed to ensure that the assets were properly disbursed, as their fiduciary duties required them to.”
“At this stage of the litigation the Petitioner sufficiently alleges breach of fiduciary duty/failure properly to administer Foundation assets and damages resulting therefrom,” Scarpulla later wrote.
Scarpulla also challenged the Trump Foundation’s claim that the distribution of those funds did not constitute a related party transaction, or a transaction in which Trump had a financial interest. Such a transaction is defined as “any transaction, agreement, or any other arrangement in which a related party has a financial interest,” according to the decision.
In this case, Scarpulla wrote, the free media Trump gained by holding the fundraiser and a handful of events afterward distributing the money represented his financial interest in the arrangement.
“Here again, that the donated funds ultimately went to charitable organizations does not, by itself, refute a claim that the Campaign used the Foundation’s funds to garner votes for Mr. Trump,” Scarpulla wrote. “Here the petition alleges that, by using the Foundation’s assets, the Campaign garnered expensive, vote-getting publicity that Mr. Trump would have otherwise paid for himself. The petition thus sufficiently alleges that Mr. Trump’s interest in the alleged acts of self-dealing were financial in nature and were substantial.”
Trump’s attorneys suggested in previous filings that if their motion to dismiss was rejected, they would seek discovery into their claims of bias against the attorney general’s office. That request, for now, was denied by Scarpulla in a footnote from the decision.
“Regarding discovery as to the attorney general’s bias, I found irrelevant Respondents’ bias argument for dismissal and therefore, discovery on bias is also irrelevant and would only serve to unnecessarily delay the proceeding,” Scarpulla wrote.
Trump’s response to Underwood’s lawsuit is due in early January, according to Scarpulla’s decision.