By Kenneth Lovett
The Cuomo administration has opened an investigation into whether President Trump and his charitable foundation violated state law, two officials confirmed Wednesday night.
The state tax department probe, which has been ongoing for more than a month, is looking into whether the Donald J. Trump Foundation -- and Trump himself -- violated state law by transferring assets or making certain misrepresentations to the state with respect to tax liability and tax assignment, the officials said.
"Gov. Cuomo believes there is one set of rules for everyone -- no matter who you are or how much power you have," one Cuomo aide said. "This matter will be investigated to the fullest possible extent, and if appropriate, referred for criminal prosecution."
Word of the investigation surfaced hours after Cuomo counsel Alphonso David said the governor would be willing to give the attorney general's office a referral to launch a criminal probe into President Trump's charitable foundation -- if the AG wants it.
It also came a month after state Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed a bombshell civil lawsuit in Manhattan Supreme Court accusing the commander-in-chief and his three oldest children of operating a bogus namesake charity "in persistent violation" of federal and state laws for more than a decade.
The misdeeds included $2.8 million spent to promote Trump's presidential campaign, along with supposed charitable funds used instead to "pay off the legal obligations of entities (Trump) controlled, to promote Trump hotels, (and) to purchase personal items," the lawsuit charged.
Cuomo has been repeatedly criticized in recent weeks by Fordham Law Prof. Zephyr Teachout, who is running in the Sept. 13 Democratic primary for attorney general, for not issuing a referral to Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who already has filed a civil complaint against the Donald J. Trump Foundation.
But Underwood's office doesn't appear to want such a referral at this point.
"As our lawsuit against the Trump Foundation illustrates, we intend to hold the foundation and its directors accountable for all violations of state law," said Underwood senior policy adviser Amy Spitalnick. "We continue to evaluate the evidence to determine what additional actions may be warranted, and will seek a criminal referral from the appropriate state agency as necessary."
She added that the attorney general's office already referred apparent violations of federal law to the IRS and Federal Elections Commission.
The Cuomo officials said the state Tax Department has the authority to investigate whether anyone has violated state laws criminally and, on average, refers 10 such cases a month for prosecution. Mostly the referrals go to local district attorneys, though sometimes they can go to the attorney general's office.
Once the Tax Department probe is complete, the findings could be referred to the appropriate law enforcement agency to present to a grand jury, a second Cuomo aide said.
Underwood aides said they fear a criminal action at this moment would likely lead to a stay of the civil lawsuit, which they say would delay efforts to hold the Trump Foundation and its directors accountable.
The civil case, they say, may also allow for additional discovery as well as the relief sought in the suit, including the restitution of $2.8 million plus penalties, the dissolution of the foundation, and bans on Trump and his kids from serving on other charitable boards of directors for at least a year.
Spitalnick could not be reached late Wednesday night for comment on the Cuomo administration probe and the impact it might have on AG's civil case.
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