WHEN Donald Trump withdrew from a Fox News-sponsored Republican debate in Des Moines, Iowa, in early 2016, he announced that he would instead spend the evening holding a fundraiser for veterans. While his rival candidates in Republican primaries prattled on some blocks away, Mr Trump duly entreated attendees and viewers to log on to www.donaldtrumpforvets.com and make a donation. In all, he collected some $5.6m, a handsome sum. Only, it later transpired, about half the cash was retained by Mr Trump’s charitable foundation.

The other half of the cash did go to veterans’ organisations. Over the following days and weeks Mr Trump announced gifts to such groups with great fanfare and reference to his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again!” The degree to which he sought to make political mileage out of the event was remarkable. “When I raise money for the veterans, and it's a massive amount of money, find out how much Hillary Clinton's given to the veterans. Nothing," he said. At the same time, the Trump Foundation’s donations were not approved by its board of directors, as the rules governing such entities require that they should have been. They appear to have been apportioned by representatives of Mr Trump’s campaign, including Corey Lewandowski, the then campaign manager. "I think we should get the total collected and then put out a press release that we distributed the $$ to each of the groups”, Mr Lewandowski wrote in one e-mail.

These details were all cited on June 14th in a civil suit against the president filed by the attorney-general of New York. It alleged his foundation “has operated in persistent violation of state and federal law”.

The lawsuit was brought by Barbara Underwood, New York’s acting attorney-general since Eric Schneiderman stepped down in May when allegations arose that he had abused women. Ms Underwood did not mince words in the 41-page complaint. Mr Trump’s foundation functioned as “little more than a [personal] checkbook”, it reads. Mr Trump allegedly used the reserves of his foundation “to pay off the legal obligations of entities he controlled, to promote Trump hotels, to purchase personal items and to support his presidential election campaign”. Charities listed as tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organisations are supposed to be charitable—to serve the public good by distributing money to other organisations and individuals. In that spirit, Mr Trump launched his foundation in 1987 “exclusively for charitable, religious, scientific, literary or educational purposes”. But after a two-year investigation, Ms Underwood’s office appears to have concluded that the Trump Foundation’s true raison d’etre was to serve Mr Trump.

The alleged politicisation of Mr Trump’s foundation is especially problematic, as an outrage against American democracy. The “extensive coordination between the campaign and the foundation” that Ms Underwood alleges would be illegal. Tax-exempt foundations are “prohibited from participating or intervening in any political campaign on behalf of a candidate”, the complaint reads, and “[t]his statutory prohibition is absolute”.

It is not hard to see Mr Trump might have bent the rules governing his foundation in the ways alleged. The last time its board gathered for a meeting was in the previous millennium. Members of the board, never in the same room since 1999, “knowingly permitted the foundation to be coopted by Mr Trump’s presidential campaign”, Ms Underwood alleges. The foundation, she claims, is "little more than an empty shell".

Mr Trump allegedly used foundation money to help pay off Martin Greenberg, a lucky shot who scored a hole-in-one at the Trump National Golf Course and sued to collect the $1m prize offered that unlikely feat. The foundation cut a $10,000 check to buy a portrait of (who else?) Donald Trump that made its way to a wall in one of Mr Trump’s golf resorts. It paid $5,000 to place an advert for Trump hotels in a charity progamme. It spent $25,000 toward the re-election campaign of Pat Bondi, Florida’s attorney-general, who later endorsed Mr Trump’s presidential campaign and declared him a friend. 

Such abuses, many of which were uncovered by sleuths at the Washington Post during the election campaign, may amount to “self-dealing”—an offence that involves exploiting a position to breach a fiduciary duty for personal benefit. Self-dealing is not a crime, however. Ms Underwood’s lawsuit is a civil complaint filed in New York’s state courts. She is asking the foundation to pay penalties of $2.8m—the sum of the 2016 donations to veterans she says were illicit campaign expenditures. She wants the $1m remaining in the foundation’s coffers to be handed out to other charities and the foundation dissolved. She also demands that Mr Trump be barred from heading a non-profit organisation in New York state for ten years and that a one-year bar apply to his three grown children and erstwhile or current board members—Ivanka, Donald Jr and Eric.

Does this lawsuit have legs? There seems to be little doubt that the Trump Foundation played fast and loose with the rules. It is unclear, however, whether the courts will decide that a sitting president can be deposed for charity-law infractions. It also remains to be seen whether letters Ms Underwood penned to the Federal Election Commission and Internal Revenue Service will spur those agencies to undertake federal investigations of the abuses she alleges took place.

Mr Trump’s response to these humiliating allegations was sadly true-to-form. He tweeted that the case had been brought by “sleazy New York Democrats” and pushed by “disciples” of the “disgraced” Mr Schneiderman. It would be even sadder if that were the last word on this matter. Yet sitting presidents have little to fear from the law outside an impeachment proceeding. And it is hard to think that even the most anti-Trump members of the House of Representatives could consider his foundation’s shortcomings to constitute the “high crimes and misdemeanours” required for that. Too minor, perhaps, to have serious political ramification, yet too serious to ignore, the scandal may represent another blow against public probity by a rule-breaking president.