A New York judge said Wednesday he will lift Donald Trump's contempt of court order if the former president meets conditions including paying USD 110,000 in fines he has racked up for being slow to respond to a civil subpoena issued by the state's attorney general.
Judge Arthur Engoron said he will end his contempt finding if Trump submits additional paperwork by May 20, detailing efforts to search for the subpoenaed records and explaining his and his company's document retention policies.
Engoron declared Trump in contempt on April 25 and fined him USD 10,000 per day for not complying with a subpoena in New York Attorney General Letitia James' long-running investigation into Trump's business practices.
James, a Democrat, has said her three-year investigation uncovered evidence that Trump's company, the Trump Organization, misstated the value of assets like skyscrapers and golf courses on financial statements for over a decade.
Trump, a Republican, denies the allegations. He has been calling James' investigation "racist" and a politically motivated "witch hunt". James is Black. Trump's lawyers have accused her of selective prosecution.
Trump's lawyers contend James is using her civil investigation to gain access to information that could then be used against him in a parallel criminal investigation being conducted by the Manhattan District Attorney, Alvin Bragg, also a Democrat.
Engoron ordered Trump to pay USD 110,000 because that is the total amount of fines he accrued through May 6, when Trump's lawyers submitted 66 pages of court documents detailing the efforts by him and his lawyers to locate the subpoenaed records.
The judge required a company hired by Trump to aid in the search, HaystackID, finish going through 17 boxes kept at an off-site storage facility, and for that company to report its findings and turn over any relevant documents.
Engoron said he could reinstate the fine, retroactive to May 7, if his conditions are not met. He told Trump to pay the money directly to James' office and for the attorney general to hold the money in an escrow account while Trump's legal team appeals the original contempt finding.
In a statement Wednesday, James praised Engoron's handling of the contempt allegation.
"For years, Mr Trump and the Trump Organization have tried to thwart our lawful investigation, but today's decision makes clear that no one can evade accountability," James said.
A message seeking comment was left with Trump's lawyer.
The legal battle between James and Trump also played out Wednesday in a mid-level state appeals court, which heard arguments in a related matter: Trump and his two eldest children's appeal of Engoron's February 17 ruling requiring them to answer questions under oath in the civil investigation.
Trump's lawyer Alan Futerfas said James was engaging in a trick to get around a state law that requires immunity for people testifying before a criminal grand jury. He also criticised Engoron for not holding a hearing to explore the nature of coordination between James' office and the district attorney's office.
Judith Vale, arguing on behalf of James' office, countered there was ample evidence from the civil investigation to support subpoenas for the Trumps' testimony. She also cited legal precedent allowing the attorney general's office to do so, and said the Trumps could always invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination -- as Trump's son Eric did hundreds of times in a 2020 deposition.
"I agree that it is proper for courts to protect against the evisceration of the privilege against self-incrimination. But what prevents you from invoking that privilege?" appellate court Judge Rolando T Acosta, one of the four judges on the panel, asked Futerfas. "Why do we need to intervene in this case, and interfere or constrain the ample discretion and authority given by statute to the attorney general?"
The court did not give a timetable for a decision.
James had asked Engoron to find Trump in contempt of court after he failed to produce any documents to satisfy a March 31 deadline to meet the terms of her subpoena. She sought documents pertaining to his annual financial statements, development projects, and even communications with Forbes magazine, where he sought to burnish his image as a wealthy businessman.
One of Trump's lawyers, Alina Habba, said in a May 6 court filing that the former president responded to the subpoena completely and no relevant documents were withheld. She said Trump's team looked for records at his offices and private quarters at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and his residence in Florida but did not find anything relevant that had not already been produced. Her filing also detailed searches of other locations, including file cabinets and storage areas at the Trump Organization's offices in New York.
In a separate sworn affidavit included with the filing, Trump said he had turned over all the relevant documents.
He added he owns two cell phones: an iPhone for personal use that he submitted in March to be searched as part of the subpoena, then submitted again in May; plus a second phone he was recently given that was only used to post on Truth Social, the social media network he started after his ban from Twitter, Facebook and other platforms.
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