Five things to know about the Trump inauguration investigation

Federal prosecutors in New York are reportedly probing whether President Trump’s inaugural committee misspent donated funds from the record $107 million it received for the 2017 event.

In addition to examining possible financial wrongdoing, investigators are scrutinizing donors who may have written sizable checks in exchange for access to the Trump administration, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

{mosads}The probe’s findings could affect other matters involving Trump, namely special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Here are five things to know about the Trump inauguration probe.

Wide range of potential crimes under examination

Legal experts say there could be several crimes at play, including violations of bribery statutes as well as tax and wire laws.

“Anytime someone donates to an inaugural committee, there is obviously some sort of generalized expectation of access,” Elie Honig, a former federal prosecutor, told The Hill. “But if you can show that something goes beyond a generalized unspoken expectation, then you may have a bribery case.”

Honig said there may be violations of tax statutes if members of the committee exploited the tax-exempt status granted to nonprofit organizations. If an individual diverts the nonprofit’s funds for their personal benefit, that could be viewed as a potential scheme to defraud people who donated to the inaugural committee.

“If they were spending nonprofit money on expenditures that are not allowed for a nonprofit, it is a way to get around taxes, then it is a tax liability,” Honig added.

Seth Waxman, a former federal prosecutor, said bribery could be a 15-year offense, while a scheme to defraud donors could lead to 20 years in prison. Campaign finance violations, on the other hand, typically result in five-year sentences or less, he said.

The probe also reportedly folds into the Russia investigation, as Mueller seeks to determine whether foreign individuals and groups illegally pumped money into the president’s inaugural fund in an attempt to influence U.S. policy.

Under federal law, foreigners are not permitted to contribute to federal campaigns, political action committees or inaugural funds.

Trump may have legal exposure

A key question, experts said, is what kind of legal exposure Trump might have in this kind of investigation.

Waxman, who now works for Dickinson Wright PLLC in Washington, said Trump wouldn’t be held criminally responsible if those working on his inaugural committee misused funds. But if he was involved, Waxman said, it’s a whole other ballgame.

“If he knew this was going on and he took some active steps to help it come about … then it could subject him,” Waxman said.

The Journal reported that key members of Trump’s campaign joined the inaugural committee, which increases the odds of someone in Trump’s orbit getting caught up in this probe.

“Prosecutors from SDNY are particularly savvy when it comes to investigating and prosecuting white-collar crimes,” said former federal prosecutor Joseph Moreno, referring to the Southern District of New York. “They are known for financial crimes by their prosecutions. If this reporting is accurate, this is serious. It is likely not a fishing expedition.”

There is also crossover between this investigation and Mueller’s probe, which is examining possible ties between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Details that arise in the inaugural fund review could affect Mueller’s probe, particularly since there is overlap with some of the witnesses who are cooperating in both investigations.

The White House has denied any wrongdoing.

“That doesn’t have anything to do with the president or the first lady,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters on Thursday. “The biggest thing the president did, his engagement in the inauguration, was to come here and raise his hand and take the oath of office. The president was focused on the transition during that time and not on any of the planning for the inauguration.”

Cohen played a key role

Michael Cohen, who transformed from one of the president’s most loyal defenders into a prominent political and legal foe, is a key player in the inauguration probe.

Earlier this year, federal investigators seized materials from Cohen’s office and room when they began investigating his business dealings. Those records reportedly contributed to the Southern District of New York’s investigation.

Cohen, who was sentenced to three years in prison on Wednesday, agreed as part of his plea deal to work with investigators across a series of probes, including Mueller’s. That agreement allows prosecutors to review the documents they seized when his office and room were raided, as well as follow-up on any key questions that may arise from inauguration documents.

“Cohen could be very important,” Honig said. “Investigators got a lot of materials and documents during a search warrant that they executed on his office and home.”

The FBI reportedly obtained a recording in which Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to first lady Melania Trump, told Cohen she was concerned about spending by the inaugural committee. It’s unclear when that discussion took place.

{mossecondads}Prosecutors are also said to be examining a $1 million donation made to the inaugural fund by Tennessee developer Franklin Haney. Cohen represented Hanley when he sought to obtain a $5 billion loan from the Department of Energy. Prosecutors are now reportedly seeking to interview Hanley about his donation.

There are other cooperators

Cohen is not the only person cooperating with investigators.

Samuel Patten, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant, pleaded guilty in August for arranging for a U.S. citizen to act as a “straw donor.” The unidentified donor gave $50,000 in exchange for tickets to the inauguration celebration, which were then handed off to a prominent Ukrainian oligarch. Foreigners are barred from contributing to inaugural funds.

Patten, who pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign lobbyist, has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, including Mueller, as part of his plea deal. That puts him in a position to offer information on whether other foreigners tried to contribute to the inauguration.

And then there’s Richard Gates, the longtime business partner of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Gates began cooperating with the special counsel earlier this year.

“There is another cooperator here and it is Rick Gates,” Honig said. “Rick Gates was the deputy chairperson of the inauguration, so he is cooperating by all accounts.”

Investigation is in early stage

It’s unclear how many transactions are under scrutiny by investigators. 

Tom Barrack, who served as the chairman of Trump’s inaugural committee, has declined to publicly release the findings of an external audit that examined the inauguration panel’s finances.

But investigators have a strong foothold with their multiple cooperators.

“One good cooperator can at least give you some good lay of the land, and two can give you even more,” Honig said. “And to the extent these two cooperators, who should not be in contact with each other, tell you the same thing, then that starts to get pretty reliable.”

The inaugural committee’s events initially captured the attention of federal investigators because of the number of prominent foreign business leaders, many from Russia, who attended. Federal prosecutors will now be examining whether other foreign nations sought to gain access to the Trump administration to influence U.S. policy.

“We knew of potential Russian involvement and outreach to the Trump campaign. The fact now that you have other countries like Saudi [Arabia] and United Arab Emirates with these potential donations is a continuation of a disturbing trend,” said Moreno, who now works at Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft LLP. “We have these laws in place to prevent foreign interference in a foreign election and now we have more than one potential outside actor which appears to be making outreach to potential American politics.”

Tags Donald Trump Melania Trump Paul Manafort Robert Mueller

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