Post-inauguration soiree unravels amid accusations of pay-to-play politics
By Carrie Levine, Publlicintegrity.org
A pay-to-play soiree offering the ultra-wealthy access to newly inaugurated President Donald Trump is unraveling — after the Center for Public Integrity on Monday revealed that Trump’s adult sons are registered directors of the new, Texas-based nonprofit organizing the event.
Since then, Eric Trump told the New York Times that he and his brother will not attend the Jan. 21 event in Washington, D.C., despite promotional material originally promising their participation as honorary co-chairmen — and a bonus hunting and fishing trip with one or both of the brothers.
Event organizers, meanwhile, distributed revised descriptions of the event that removed references to Donald Trump’s attendance. It also removed mention of the multi-day hunting and fishing trip for sponsors who ponied up $500,000 or more.
And while all three Trump names are still prominently featured on the event’s promotional materials, the nonprofit behind the event, known as the Opening Day Foundation, on Tuesday amended its incorporation documents. Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. are no longer named as directors.
The hunting-themed “Opening Day 2017” affair (dress code: “camouflage and cufflinks”) is the latest in a series of potential conflicts to surface for the incoming administration, prompting additional questions about the rules Trump will put in place to avoid any appearance of influence-peddling, something he frequently decried on the campaign trail.
Here's how the Opening Day 2017 event sprung into existence — and fell apart almost as quickly:
The brochure for Opening Day 2017, listing sponsorship packages ranging from $25,000 to $1 million, first surfaced on website TMZ.com.
It offered big-dollar donors the chance to attend a “private reception and photo opportunity” with the freshly inaugurated Trump, as well as a “multi-day hunting and/or fishing excursion” with Donald Trump Jr. and/or Eric Trump “and team,” plus other event tickets and benefits.
The brochure didn’t spell out who was organizing it or who would benefit, saying only that net proceeds would be donated to unspecified “conservation charities.” Rather, interviews and documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity revealed the organizer was a new foundation called the Opening Day Foundation, incorporated in Texas on Dec. 14.
The paperwork for the Opening Day Foundation listed four directors: Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Dallas investor Gentry Beach and Tom Hicks Jr., the son of a Dallas billionaire. Beach and Hicks are reportedly close friends with Donald Trump Jr., and both men helped raise millions of dollars for Trump’s campaign. Beach is also the godfather to one of Donald Trump Jr.’s children, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Trump officials — as well as Beach and Hicks — initially stayed silent, ignoring repeated requests for comment.
But on Tuesday, the Trump transition team issued a statement. It read: "The Opening Day event and details that have been reported are merely initial concepts that have not been approved or pursued by the Trump family. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are avid outdoorsmen and supporters of conservation efforts, which align with the goals of this event, however they are not involved in any capacity."
The nonprofit filings, Trump officials said, would be amended and the brothers’ names deleted. Anonymous transition officials told the Washington Post that the names of Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump had been included on the documents “without their permission.”
Mark Brinkerhoff, a spokesman for the Opening Day 2017 event, said Tuesday night in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity that Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump are invited to the event, but their participation isn’t confirmed.
The inauguration weekend event would be the first for the Opening Day Foundation, which Brinkerhoff said is currently seeking official recognition from the Internal Revenue Service to operate as a 501(c)(3) charity. This status would allow donors to deduct contributions on their taxes.
Such nonprofits also aren’t required by law to disclose their donors, meaning pro-Trump contributors to the Opening Day Foundation could ostensibly do so anonymously. Political committees such as candidates’ campaigns and super PACs, in contrast, must reveal their donors in periodic reports to the Federal Election Commission.
Brinkerhoff said the goal is for the Opening Day Foundation is to distribute proceeds to conservation charities — similar to what the United Way does for other charitable organizations.
The new documents outlining sponsorship opportunities said that until the IRS grants the Opening Day Foundation tax-exempt status, the Opening Day Foundation will operate as a “project of the Boone and Crockett Club Foundation Inc.,” a wildlife conservation group based in Montana.
A spokesman for the Boone and Crockett Club Foundation, however, told the Washington Post that the group has not decided whether to participate in the Opening Day 2017 fundraiser.
Asked Tuesday night about the Trump brothers’ involvement with the creation of the foundation, Brinkerhoff said he “didn’t know” whether they had agreed to have their names on the original nonprofit documents.
Ultimately, he said, “The foundation creators determined among themselves that the founders of the foundation will not include Eric or Donald Jr.”
In interviews with the Dallas Morning News and Washington Post this week, Hicks Jr. and Beach disagreed over who first had the idea to create the Opening Day Foundation.
Hicks attributed the idea to Donald Trump Jr. and Beach.
“One of the most important things for Don Jr. and Eric is conservation, and we wanted to help them organize a party to celebrate conservation,” Hicks told the Washington Post. “After the president-elect won, we got focused on this. Don Jr. and Gentry have been spearheading it.”
But Beach told the Dallas Morning News that he and Hicks thought of the idea for the foundation in early December.
Beach also said that after the nonprofit was registered, lawyers advised the foundation’s committee to remove the Trumps’ names.
“It became clear that we needed to go in a different direction. So we took Don Jr. and Eric out of the foundation completely,” Beach said.
In response to requests for comment from Beach and Hicks, Brinkerhoff issued a statement to the Center for Public Integrity: “The group is committed to and supportive of conservation causes, and excited to create positive change.”
Ethics experts say the incident — and others, including a canceled plan to raise money for charity by auctioning off coffee with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and Trump’s inauguration itself — highlights the need for Trump and his administration to set clear guidelines and rules governing conflicts of interest and pay-to-play issues.
“The whole thing adds up to an unprecedented assault on the constitution on ethics and on frankly on taste,” said Norman Eisen, who was a top ethics lawyer in the Obama White House, referring to the series of questions about potential conflicts of interest and ethics issues. “It’s like the appetizer at the corruption banquet. I’ve never seen anything like it.”