NEW YORK — Is there a backdoor to getting at President Donald Trump’s tax returns?
At least one Democratic activist says yes, and it’s through a New York state investigation into Trump’s charity.
State attorney general candidate Zephyr Teachout held a news conference in front of Trump Tower on Wednesday calling on the governor to grant authority to state prosecutors pursuing a civil case against the Trump Foundation to launch a criminal probe, a shift that she says could lead to the release of the president’s tax returns. Trump has refused to release his returns, bucking decades of precedent.
“Not having Donald Trump’s tax returns is a national security issue,” said Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University. “We don’t know foreign money flows to the president.”
Within hours, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is running for a third term in November, said he would grant such authority if asked by the attorney general.
The attorney general alleged in a civil lawsuit in June that Trump illegally tapped his Trump Foundation to settle legal disputes, help his campaign for president and pay for personal and business expenses, which included spending $10,000 on a six-foot portrait of himself.
A criminal investigation would allow state prosecutors to broaden their probe, a jump in authority that often requires a referral from the governor or a state agency.
The attorney general’s office said Wednesday that it wasn’t ruling out seeking broader authority, but that criminal probes related to taxes often involve tax evasion, which the president is not accused of. It also said a shift to a criminal probe could help efforts by Trump lawyers to get a judge to delay the civil case.
“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 spokeswoman 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.”
Trump said during his campaign that he couldn’t release his federal tax returns because he was being audited, though experts and Internal Revenue Service officials have said such audits don’t bar taxpayers from releasing their returns.
Since assuming the presidency Trump has said only the news media was interested in his taxes, not the public.
Teachout said she’s calling for a broader probe to hold the president criminally responsible for what she says was use of his foundation as a “piggybank” to pay his bills, but that such a criminal investigation would likely involve subpoenaed tax records.
The attorney general’s office is seeking $2.8 million in restitution and other unspecified penalties in its civil suit. It said that it had referred to its findings to the IRS and the Federal Election Commission for possible further action.
Trump has called the civil case “ridiculous,” tweeting “I won’t settle this case!”
Cuomo, a Democrat, has granted power to the attorney general to pursue criminal investigations in the past. Following cases involving police killings of unarmed civilians, he granted a standing referral for criminal investigations into police misconduct.
The Republican president is fighting two other lawsuits that could force him to release his returns, both alleging that he has violated a constitutional ban on accepting foreign government payments in allowing diplomats and other government representatives to hold parties and stay at his hotels. Trump’s lawyers say the constitution’s so-called emoluments clause does not apply to normal business transactions requiring payment for services.
This isn’t the first time New York state Democrats have tried to force Trump to reveal his tax returns. State Sen. Brad Hoylman of Manhattan introduced legislation that would require the state to release five years of tax information for any president or vice president who files a New York state return.
Another bill would require any presidential candidate to release his or her tax returns as a requirement to appear on the state ballot.
Neither bill received a full vote.
AP reporter David Klepper in Albany, New York, contributed to this story.