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Trump inaugural committee under criminal investigation, sources say

Live coverage: Inauguration Day in Washington DC
Posted at 2:24 PM, Dec 15, 2018

(CNN) -- President Donald Trump's 2017 inaugural committee is currently being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York for possible financial abuses related to the more than $100 million in donations raised for his inauguration, according to sources familiar with the matter.

One source familiar with the matter says the investigation is in the early stages and investigators are generally focused on whether any inauguration money was misspent.

The investigation was first reported by The Wall Street Journal Thursday afternoon.

Citing conversations with people familiar with the investigation, which is being handled by the US Attorney's office in Manhattan, the Journal reported that prosecutors are also looking into whether the committee accepted donations from individuals looking to gain influence in or access to the new administration.

The newspaper notes that "giving money in exchange for political favors" is illegal, as is misuse of any donated funds. The committee was registered as a nonprofit.

The New York Times reported Thursday night that federal prosecutors are looking into whether people from foreign countries funneled potentially illegal donations to both the inaugural fund and a pro-Trump super PAC in efforts to buy "influence over American policy." The paper, citing people familiar with the inquiry, said it focuses on people from Middle Eastern countries -- including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- and whether they "used straw donors to disguise their donations to the two funds."

Federal law does not allow foreign contributions to inaugural funds or PACs, according to the Times.

In a statement, Trump's inaugural committee said the celebration was "in full compliance with all applicable laws."

"The (committee) is not aware of any pending investigations and has not been contacted by any prosecutors. We simply have no evidence the investigation exists," the statement read.

"The (committee's) finances were fully audited internally and independently and are fully accounted. Moreover, the inauguration's accounting was provided both to the Federal Election Commission and the IRS in compliance with all laws and regulations. These were funds raised from private individuals and were then spent in accordance with the law and the expectations of the donors. The names of donors were provided to the FEC and have been public for nearly two years and those donors were vetted in accordance with the law and no improprieties have been found regardng the vetting of those donors."

When asked by reporters about the Wall Street Journal story Thursday, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said, "That doesn't have anything to do with the President or the first lady. The biggest thing the President did, his engagement in the inauguration, was to come here and raise his hand and take the oath of office. The President was focused on the transition at that time and not on any of the planning for the inauguration."

According to the Journal, sources told the paper that the investigation "partly arises out of materials seized in the federal probe of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's business dealings."

During a raid of Cohen's properties last spring, a recorded conversation between him and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to first lady Melania Trump, was seized, according to the newspaper. Wolkoff expressed concern in the conversation about how the inaugural committee was spending money, a person familiar with the Cohen investigation told the Journal.

Rick Gates, Trump's former campaign aide who has been cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, was asked by prosecutors about the committee's spending and its donors, the Journal reported, citing conversations with people close to the matter.

In a statement provided to CNN, Tom Barrack, a real estate developer who ran the inaugural committee, denied there was a new investigation into the matter and said he hadn't recently been asked questions about it by Mueller's office.

"Information about questions asked about in 2017 does not mean that there is a 'new investigation.' What it means is that the Special Counsel's staff was both professional and comprehensive back in 2017 when I sat for a voluntary interview," Barrack said in a statement to CNN.

"They have shown themselves to be pretty tenacious when they find something they judge worth pursuing," he said. "I asked my counsel to check with Special Counsel Mueller's staff this week and ask if they had any new or additional questions -- the answer was no, and he was told I am not under investigation."

Barrack had not spoken with investigators since the interview he had with the special counsel last year, CNN reported this week, citing a source familiar with the matter. During his conversation with Mueller, the inaugural fund was raised only briefly, the source said.

"The inaugural committee hasn't been asked for records or been contacted by prosecutors. We are not aware of any investigation," the source told CNN.

The committee, which CNN previously reported had raised a record-setting $107 million, received much of its funding from wealthy donors who gave $1 million or more, according to the Journal. Some of the fund's top donors, including billionaire Sheldon Adelson, AT&T Inc. (the parent company of CNN) and Boeing Co. are not currently under investigation, the newspaper reported.

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