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Progressives Push New York Attorney General To Investigate Trump

President Trump today at the White House. The New York attorney general says Democratic AGs are considering challenging state corporate charters of the president's businesses. Evan Vucci/AP hide caption

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Evan Vucci/AP

President Trump today at the White House. The New York attorney general says Democratic AGs are considering challenging state corporate charters of the president's businesses.

Evan Vucci/AP

A liberal advocacy group on Wednesday called upon New York State to investigate whether the Trump Organization has engaged in fraud and illegal activity, and consider revoking its corporate charter.

The request is not falling on deaf ears.

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman provided no specifics but told NPR a charter challenge is indeed part of a broader discussion among Democratic attorneys general about President Trump's business holdings.

"Our goal here is not to scramble around looking for ways to get Trump," he said of the Democratic AGs' strategy, but "there will be litigation relating to his [Trump's] failure to divest."

His comments came after a group called Free Speech For People presented Schneiderman's office with a 24-page letter, outlining concerns about the Trump company's past legal infractions, including settlements involving housing discrimination charges in the 1970s and recent fraud allegations involving Trump University.

It also raises questions about whether Trump might be receiving foreign payments in ways that would violate the U.S. Constitution.

Here's the issue: As a businessman, Trump has financial interests in hundreds of companies spread over about 20 countries, all grouped together under the Trump Organization umbrella. And as president, Trump could make policy decisions that could enhance the value of his businesses, creating ethical conflicts.

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The Free Speech For People letter reads: "By continuing to operate under Trump family ownership and control with President Trump in the White House, the Trump Organization flagrantly abuses its state-granted powers, contrary to the public policies of New York against corruption and conflicts of interest, and contrary to the U.S. Constitution."

The group's outside counsel Jonathan Abady said in a conference call that "the president is converting the Oval Office into his own personal candy store."

Trump has taken no steps to sell off his business interests to end the conflicts, although he has been filing legal paperwork to remove himself from management of his New York-based company, which owns real estate, golf, hotel and other businesses. He has turned over management to his two oldest sons.

Ethics experts say that to be free of conflicts of interest, Trump should sell off his holdings. But Schneiderman said of the Trump family, "It's not clear to anybody what their plan is going forward to remove these entanglements."

The New York attorney general already has sued Trump University, the real estate seminar program. In a recent settlement that also included other plaintiffs, Trump U agreed to pay $25 million to purchasers who said they'd been swindled. It didn't admit guilt.

In October, Schneiderman ordered the Donald J. Trump Foundation to stop fundraising and launched an investigation. He stopped Trump from dissolving the foundation until the probe is finished.

And last month Schneiderman joined the American Civil Liberties Union in challenging the president's immigration-and-refugee-related travel ban.

The coordinated legal strategy being developed by Schneiderman and other Democratic state attorneys general would be similar to what happened in the Obama era when Republican AGs banded together to challenge the Affordable Care Act and various environmental regulations.

Revoking a corporate charter would be a rare but powerful legal weapon to use against the Trump, whose business empire has its roots in New York. The last time that state used it was in 1994, said Ron Fein, legal director of Free Speech For People.

The Trump Organization didn't reply to a request for comment on the potential challenge to its corporate charter.

Free Speech for People is one of the groups backing a campaign to try to impeach Trump.