New group plans legal challenges to Trump businesses

 In Politics

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Several people connected to Integrity First for America indicated that it has spent considerable time seeking potential plaintiffs, such as businesses who could claim they were injured by Trump organization dealings. Buisness owners have already filed suit over competitors like the Trump International Hotel in Washington. | AP Photo

First lawsuit expected within days

A new organization aiming to step up the legal pressure on President Donald Trump’s business empire is launching this week with the backing of several liberal icons, including the lawyer who scored the first big Supreme Court win for same-sex marriage and a TV producer best known for a hotly-disputed story about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service.

Integrity First for America has raised at least $2 million to support its operations and is expected to file its first lawsuit within days, people involved with the fledgling group told POLITICO.

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The drive to set up the new corruption-focused organization was spearheaded by Roberta Kaplan, a New York attorney best known for leading the legal battle that led to the 2013 Supreme Court decision striking down the crux of the Defense of Marriage Act.

“It was born out of the idea that additional effort and energy needed to be devoted to combating what I hope never becomes the new norm: a pervasive sense of conflict of interest and corruption,” Kaplan said about the new group in an interview Monday.

Among the staffers Kaplan recruited for the project is Mary Mapes, the former CBS Evening News producer who worked closely with anchor Dan Rather on a 2004 report about alleged preferential treatment for Bush in the Texas Air National Guard. The episode, which led to Mapes’ firing from CBS and Rather’s retirement from the network, was dramatized in a 2015 film—”Truth.”

Mapes, whom Kaplan contacted through a mutual friend, will serve as Integrity First’s director of research. Her deputy will be another former journalist: Jeff Pillets, a longtime investigative reporter for the Record in Bergen County, N.J.

Some of those affiliated with the new group were cagey about what its focus will be. Indeed, they seemed reluctant even to utter Trump’s name in connection with the new organization. The group’s website, which went live over the weekend, takes a similar tack by making no direct mention of Trump.

However, a page on the site includes a prominent photo of an anti-Trump protest. And the language nearby leaves little doubt that the group is hoping to tap into anger about Trump’s business dealings.

“Using the courts, and the court of public opinion, IFA stops political elites from rigging the system to their personal financial advantage and dismantling the norms that have kept America strong,” the site says.

Asked about the lack of direct mention of Trump, Integrity First spokesman Brett Edkins said: “The mission is nonpartisan, looking at any instance where people in political power are abusing their power or profiting.”

When asked whether the group plans to explore instances of state and local corruption, Edkins said he doubted it.

“We’re focused on the national level,” he said. “Our top concern right now is…businesses with political connections playing by a different set of rules, having unfair advantage and profiting off the backs of working people.”

Dmitri Mehlhorn, a partner at investment firm Vidinovo and a board member for the new group, acknowledged that intense concern about Trump’s business ties is a key motivating factor behind the effort.

“This particular family and this particular set of businesses has a particularly troubling track record,” said Mehlhorn. “The Trump business empire does have an unusually high percentage of suspicious behavior and borderline criminal behavior…..It becomes a lot more urgent when that business also has its leadership scattered throughout the White House.”

A lawyer for the Trump Organization, Alan Garten, said Monday he would not comment on the new organization until its plans became clear.

Mehlhorn said the hiring of two investigative journalists was aimed at trying to replicate efforts like the recent POLITICO investigation of charter air travel that led to the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price.

“That would never have been exposed without substantial journalistic shoe leather. That’s just a perfect case study of why we need people with journalistic training to dig out what the powerful don’t want you to know,” Mehlhorn said.

Edkins said Integrity First has already raised $2 million from large donors and plans to seek grassroots donations as well. One of the group’s board members is Susie Tompkins Buell, a co-founder of fashion company Esprit and a longtime friend and financial supporter of Hillary Clinton.

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