ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
New York's attorney general has sued President Trump and his three eldest children. The AG says they used the Trump Foundation charity to help his presidential campaign and cover personal expenses. As Bobby Allyn reports, New York prosecutors want to dissolve the foundation and force Trump to pay nearly $3 million.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: There are strict rules about what charity money can and cannot be used for. And according to New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood's civil suit, President Trump's foundation routinely flouted many of them. Pamela Mann formerly led the Charities Bureau in the New York attorney general's office.
PAMELA MANN: It is absolutely prohibited for a private foundation like the Trump Foundation to spend any of its assets on anything related to political activity.
ALLYN: And the suit says that is exactly what Trump's charity was doing - allegedly using his foundation as almost a personal ATM for business expenses, legal bills and to boost his presidential campaign.
NORM EISEN: It's a profound perversion of any charity to use it for private purposes, for self-aggrandizement as opposed to serving the public interest.
ALLYN: That's Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
EISEN: But to do it for a political campaign is the lowest of the low.
ALLYN: Underwood's legal action calls for the Trump Foundation to be completely dissolved and that the president pay at least $2.8 million in restitution for what the state prosecutor calls persistent illegal activity. On Twitter, Trump called the lawsuit a, quote, "ridiculous case" brought by, quote, "the sleazy New York Democrats." The Trump Foundation said the suit represents politics, quote, "at its very worst," claiming the group has donated $19 million to worthy causes.
The investigation was first launched by former New York Attorney General and fierce Trump critic Eric Schneiderman, who resigned last month amid a sexual misconduct scandal. Underwood, who's been on the job for just about a month, told CNN this type of action is not unusual. But what makes it unique is the person at the center of it.
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BARBARA UNDERWOOD: But there's no reason why a foundation owned and operated by a sitting president should be exempt from the laws that we routinely apply to other foundations.
ALLYN: In its statement, the foundation said it had already been planning to shut down for more than a year, but the AG's investigation forced them to stop. Mann, the former New York state prosecutor, said had they close the foundation in the midst of an investigation, it would have likely made the civil probe moot. And as the case proceeds, Mann says previously unknown information about the foundation could come out of its top officials if they are forced to sit for depositions. Bobby Allyn, NPR News in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.