Who is Letitia James? New York’s attorney general ‘undeterred’ in wide-open Trump investigation

Now in her third year in office, the state’s top prosecutor is overseeing several high-profile cases – including a wide-ranging probe into her long-running foe

Alex Woodward
New York
Thursday 17 February 2022 20:25 GMT
Donald Trump, Ivanka and Don Jr subpoenaed by NY attorney general

The woman leading civil and criminal inquiries into Donald Trump’s business empire, his family’s real estate holdings and the former president’s flagship properties has unveiled the clearest picture yet of one of the several cases involving the former president and his family, stemming from years of allegations about his inflated wealth.

Now, the former president, his son Donald Jr and daughter Ivanka must testify within 21 days, according to a ruling on 17 February.

“No one will be permitted to stand in the way of the pursuit of justice, no matter how powerful they are,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

Entering her third year in office, the attorney general is overseeing several high-profile investigations involving at least two former elected officials, has taken on the National Rifle Association, and remains a frequent target of the former president, who has repeatedly mocked her investigations.

Ms James, who filed several lawsuits against the Trump administration, has accused the Trump family and New York-based Trump Organization of “fraudulent or misleading” practices, including repeatedly misrepresenting the value of assets, “to obtain a host of economic benefits, including loans, insurance coverage, and tax deductions.”

No charges have yet been filed, but the latest filings from her office mark the most detailed account yet following long-running allegations involving the Trump Organization and his family.

Mr Trump’s second-oldest son, Eric, gave evidence in a sworn deposition in September 2020, during which he reportedly declined to answer questions more than 500 times to avoid potentially incriminating himself.

“For more than two years, the Trump Organization has used delay tactics and litigation in an attempt to thwart a legitimate investigation into its financial dealings,” Ms James said in a statement.

Her investigation has “uncovered significant evidence that suggests Donald J Trump and the Trump Organization falsely and fraudulently valued multiple assets and misrepresented those values to financial institutions for economic benefit,” she said.

Among the probe’s findings, the company misrepresented the estimated value of Mr Trump’s Manhattan penthouse by $200m, saying it was nearly three times its actual size.

Such statements were submitted to banks to obtain lines of credit and to comply with terms of existing loans, according to Ms James’s office. Those inflated statements helped Mr Trump secure $300m in loans from Deutsche Bank, according to her office.

The civil probe is separate from a criminal investigation Ms James is pursuing alongside Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, zeroing in on the former president’s use of “statements of financial condition” in seeking bank loans and insurance policies.

That office indicted the company and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, on criminal tax fraud charges last summer. They are accused of conspiring to pay senior executives significant off-book fringe benefits.

The Trumps have sought to quash subpoenas for their testimony, accusing Ms James of launching a political witch hunt, and have sued her office in federal court in an effort to end the investigation or recuse herself from it.

“She defrauded New Yorkers by basing her entire candidacy on a promise to get Trump at all costs without having seen a shred of evidence and in violation of every conceivable ethical rule,” a spokesperson for the Trump Organization said in a statement.

Ms James, however, says her office will continue its probe“undeterred” because “no one is above the law, not even someone with the name Trump.”

“The Trump Organization has continually sought to delay our investigation into its business dealings and now Donald Trump and his namesake company have filed a lawsuit as an attempted collateral attack on that investigation,” she said in a statement.

“To be clear, neither Mr Trump nor the Trump Organization get to dictate if and where they will answer for their actions,” she said.

In front of a rally crowd in Arizona on 15 January, the former president played clips of Ms James, in which the words “unhinged liberal” were superimposed on her face.

“Keep our prosecutors out of politics because this could work very much in the other direction also, and all it takes is a few more votes and it’ll work in the other direction. And that would be very, very sad,” he said.

Letitia James joins a Defend Democracy rally in Brooklyn marking the first anniversary of the Capitol attacks on 6 January. (REUTERS)

Ms James, 62, grew up in Brooklyn, attended law school at Howard University, and served as a public defender in New York with the Legal Aid Society before entering politics

She served on the New York City council for 10 years, becoming the first candidate running on the Working Families Party to win public office in the state. In 2013, she ran as a Democrat for the city’s public advocate position, a citywide watchdog first in line to succeed the mayor.

Ms James won election for attorney general in 2018, becoming the first Black person and woman to win statewide office in New York. She was inaugurated on 1 January, 2019

At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, her office opened a preliminary investigation into deaths and allegations of neglect in nursing homes, uncovering nearly 1,000 complaints and alleging that the state’s Department of Health and nursing homes undercounted deaths by as much as 50 per cent.

In August, Ms James released a bombshell report following an investigation into allegations that then-Governor Andrew Cuomo sexually harassed 11 women while in office. Her findings were corroborated in a separate probe from state legislators.

Her report found Mr Cuomo engaged in “unwelcome and nonconsensual touching, as well as making numerous offensive comments of a suggestive and sexual nature that created a hostile work environment for women”.

That month, Mr Cuomo – who has denied accusations of wrongdoing – resigned from his third term in office, facing potential criminal investigation into allegations of abuse and the likelihood of a weeks-long impeachment investigation stemming from the report as well as his administration’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis in nursing homes.

Ms James is pursuing a separate investigation into whether Mr Cuomo used public resources to write and promote his book chronicling his administration’s response to the pandemic.

In October 2021, Ms James entered the race for New York governor in late October, setting up a challenge against Kathy Hochul, who replaced Mr Cuomo following his resignation.

Ms James ended her candidacy in December, deciding that she “must continue my work as attorney general.”

Her candidacy for another term as attorney general also rattles the field in the upcoming primary election, in which progressive candidate Zephyr Teachout and Daniel Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who assisted House Democrats in their first impeachment probe against Mr Trump, have also entered the race.

With a renewed focus on pursuing a second term in office, Ms James has cast a wide net into her probes of her long-running foe – securing testimony from current and former Trump Organization employees, brokers, attorneys, golf experts and others with ties to the former president’s sprawling business dealings, spanning more than a decade.

“There are a number of important investigations and cases that are underway,” Ms James said in a statement in December, “and I intend to finish the job.”

This story was first published on 22 January.

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