New York Attorney General Letitia James’s decision to join forces with the Manhattan district attorney to investigate the Trump Organization “in a criminal capacity” doesn’t mean her office found a smoking gun in the case, legal experts said Wednesday.
But the development doesn’t bode well for former President Donald Trump’s company, either.
“This is not a positive development for the lawyers representing the Trump Organization,” Dennis Vacco, a former New York attorney general, said Wednesday in an interview.
James’s office, which has been conducting a civil fraud investigation into the Trump Organization’s business practices for over two years, acknowledged the probe had broadened in a statement Tuesday night.
“We have informed the Trump Organization that our investigation into the organization is no longer purely civil in nature. We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, along with the Manhattan DA. We have no additional comment at this time,” Fabien Levy, a spokesperson for the office, said in the statement.
Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance’s office has separately been investigating a variety of allegations of financial improprieties against Trump’s company. Court documents show that Vance is investigating “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization,” which could include falsifying business records, insurance fraud and tax fraud.
An official familiar with the details told NBC News that two lawyers from James’s office have been cross-designated to join Vance’s team, and that the move came after the attorney general’s civil investigation developed some evidence suggesting a possible crime.
Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, blasted the announcement as “a continuation of the greatest political Witch Hunt in the history of the United States,” in a lengthy statement on Wednesday.
Vacco said the information sharing could have big benefits for both Vance and James, who is also continuing with her civil probe.
James’s investigation has covered some of the same ground as Vance’s, including probing four different real estate projects and Trump’s failed attempt to buy the Buffalo Bills, an NFL team. Her office would likely have some documents that Vance does not, and has conducted depositions — including of Trump C.E.O. Eric Trump — that could be of use to Vance’s team.
The cross-designation also means that James’s investigators would have access to information from Vance’s probe that they would otherwise not be entitled to, including Trump’s tax returns and other financial information, Vacco said.
“It facilitates a sharing of information,” said Vacco, now a partner with Lippes Mathias, where he leads the firm’s government and state attorneys general investigations practice team.
Glenn Kirschner, a former federal prosecutor and a legal analyst for NBC News and MSNBC, agreed that the two offices teaming up was bad news for the Trump company.
“Two prosecutorial heads are better than one. To have that sort of synergy, that’s bad for the target of the investigation. How bad? We just don’t know,” Kirschner said.
Daniel R. Alonso, a former top deputy to Vance who is now a white-collar defense attorney at Buckley LLP, said it’s “not unusual” to have assistant attorneys general cross-designated in a DA’s case, but it’s not typical either.
“In a case like this, with so many investigations into the same group of companies, you want to be able to see all the evidence that’s been gathered,” and “putting their heads together just makes sense,” Alonso said.
Daniel Horwitz, a former prosecutor in the Manhattan DA’s office, said the collaboration between offices doesn’t necessarily mean that some bombshell new evidence has been uncovered — it could simply be aimed at “an efficient deployment of resources,” which would mean “better coordination and a more efficient overall investigation.”
Kirschner said the announcement might also have been aimed at sending a signal to anyone who might not be cooperating with James’s investigation.
“It’s a signal to everybody,” Kirschner said. “Do not play games.”
Jonathan Dienst contributed.