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Judge lifts contempt ruling against Trump but with conditions

President Donald J. Trump on July 7, 2020, in the East Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)
May 11, 2022

A judge in the state of New York lifted a state civil contempt ruling against former President Donald Trump but ruled that Trump would still have to pay $110,000 in fines accrued since the original contempt ruling went into effect on April 25.

On April 25, New York Judge Arthur Engoron found Trump in contempt in a civil proceeding in which New York Attorney General Letitia James sought documents from the Trump organization for a financial fraud investigation. Engoron originally issued the contempt finding after Trump’s team said they couldn’t locate specific documents that James’ team subpoenaed. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Engoron agreed to lift the contempt order, but Trump’s team would have to pay the existing fines, undergo a digital forensic review, and provide additional information about the Trump organization’s document retention policies and their efforts to locate the documents James is seeking.

James’ office is reportedly probing allegations the Trump organization illegally manipulated valuations for his properties to his financial benefit when applying for loans, obtaining insurance policies and paying taxes. Trump has consistently denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

CNBC reported Engoron was not satisfied with the Trump team’s initial efforts to locate the documents. In his Wednesday decision, he gave the Trump team until May 20 to provide more details about their efforts to comply with James’ subpoenas. Engoron also ordered the digital forensics company HaystackID to complete a review of Trump’s documents.

CBS reported James’ office sought details from specific file locations and personnel in the Trump Organization as well as several of Trump’s phones. Since the original contempt finding went into effect, Trump’s team filed several new documents saying they had conducted a thorough search of Trump’s records.

The New York Times reported an outside company also told Engoron it had reviewed more than 1,300 boxes of Trump’s documents, including hard-copy calendars, records in file cabinets at the Trump Organization’s offices in Midtown Manhattan and other boxes of documents at off-site storage facilities.

The New York Times reported searches in Trump’s records have not turned up much information and Trump’s lawyers have said they haven’t found any additional records that are responsive to the subpoena from James’ office.

CBS reported on May 6 that Trump said he doesn’t “know the whereabouts” of several phones, including one he used at the White House that “was taken from me at some point while I was President.”

Though Engoron lifted the contempt finding, he still ordered Trump to pay the $110,000 in accrued $10,000-a-day contempt fines since issuing the contempt finding. If the Trump team doesn’t respond and the digital forensic review isn’t completed by May 20, Engoron could also reinstate the $10,000 daily fines against Trump.

Because James’ probe is of a civil nature, she cannot file criminal charges. She can, however, bring a lawsuit. The New York Times reported an attorney from James’ office named Kevin Wallace had indicated they may soon file a lawsuit.

Allegations of financial fraud have also been the focus of a criminal investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. In February, two Manhattan prosecutors involved in the case abruptly resigned after their boss, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, expressed doubts about the criminal investigation he inherited from his predecessor, former District Attorney Cyrus Vance. Last month, the Washington Post reported a grand jury that had been empaneled for the past six months for the investigation expired without any charges against Trump or his organization. Though the grand jury expired, Bragg indicated the investigation is still ongoing.

Last week, former Manhattan District Attorney’s office prosecutor Rebecca Roiphe told the Guardian that after the two prosecutors resigned in February, “it seemed unlikely to me that [Bragg] really thought, at that point, that he was going to find something new.”