The Office of Anti-Trump?

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State Attorney General Letitia James has made a name for herself by suing Trump and his administration almost 70 times since she got elected. But has she crossed the line?

President Donald Trump has been sued more than any president in the history of the country during his one term.

It’s not even close.

And New York Attorney General Letitia James is a big reason why Trump has hit that infamous milestone.

James has followed the path of her two predecessors, Eric Schneiderman and Barbara Underwood, by suing Trump’s administration over issues such as threats to deport international students, the president’s financial dealings and the alleged dismantling of the United States Postal Service.

James has told reporters that her lawsuits against Trump and his inner circle are benefiting New Yorkers and she has denied that she’s crossed the political line as a prosecutor.

Of the 104 total cases against Trump and his administration to which New York State is a party, 62 have been filed by James since she took office in January 2019 (47 multistate and 15 single-state), according to research done by Paul Nolette, associate professor and department chair for political science at Marquette University. (The Attorney General’s Office said there have been 67 lawsuits that they’ve led and joined since she took office).

That means James’ office, which on average sends two to three press releases a week about Trump and his policies, has filed well over half of the state-led suits, but in less time than her two predecessors, Nolette noted.

“I think the thing that’s interesting about attorneys general is that they’re really right on that line of law and politics,” Nolette said.

“They’re bringing legal arguments in court but they’re also partisan officials. So, I think politics, when you’re talking about really highly charged issues like immigration and environmental policy and regulation, and health care … it’s really inevitable that in addition to the legal issues that are involved, that politics is going to play some role given the partisanship and polarization on all of these issues.”  

Indeed, some in the world of politics believe James is acting more like a politician with bigger aspirations and is using her office and her battles with Trump as stepping stones to wherever her next destination.

“I don’t think I would put it beyond her that part of this is all about setting herself to run for governor down the road here,” said Republican State Senate Minority Leader Robert Ortt (R-North Tonawanda).

Ortt said there are more pressing issues in Western New York, such as bad landlords and lead poisoning, that the Attorney General’s Office could fight more often. An expert on lead contamination agreed with him.  

“To me, this is all about what they might feel is good politics, particularly in New York City,” Ortt said.

“They’re playing to the base, they’re playing there to a certain voter and a certain crowd. I would argue that you’d probably … get more mileage out of prosecuting lead poisoning cases.”

James refused requests for an interview, but the office did send a list of issues her team has tackled since 2019. The list includes one landlord prosecution in the Buffalo area for lead poisoning issues. News 4 Investigates posted the entire list at the bottom of this story.

An office spokesman also said the attorney general has fought to protect Western New Yorkers.

“She has stopped absent and dangerous landlords, fraudulent debt collectors, sham businesses, and even the Trump Administration from taking advantage of our most vulnerable,” the spokesman said.

“Western New Yorkers can continue to trust Attorney General James to fight for their best interests and hold those who seek to harm our state’s residents accountable because no one is above the law.”

Jeremy Zellner, chairman of the Erie County Democratic Committee, defended James’ office and her battles with Trump. The committee originally did not endorse James until after she won the primary.

“And it is a shame that Senator Ortt and the Republicans here locally are not defending our state like she is,” Zellner said.

“They’re defending the president and their party. Letitia James is using both that shield and sword to defend us from the attacks by this president.”

Fighting for who?

James made it very clear that Trump was public enemy No. 1 even before she got elected.

She has called the president “illegitimate,” “incompetent” and “ill-equipped to serve in the highest office in the land.”

As of Oct. 12, James’s office has sent out at least 127 press releases about Trump and his administration’s policies and at least 196 in 2019. Sometimes, there will be several Trump-related press releases a week.

“But the other side of it is if they’re not dedicating a lot of resources, then this is all about the headlines,” Ortt said.

“So, it’s all about just doing the headlines and there’s really no substance to a lot of these suits or press releases, or nothing is going to come of them..”

Lead poisoning is the top local health issue facing children under the age of 6, according to the Erie County Health Department, especially in the city of Buffalo, which has some of the oldest housing stock in the country that have lead paint on the walls. Lead paint was banned in the 1970s.

Some 1,100 children a year are diagnosed with an elevated blood-lead level in Erie County. Most of the cases are in Buffalo, where old, peeling lead paint turns into flakes of dust that children inhale or swallow.

“There’s an endless pool of unsafe housing,” said Andrew McLellan, president of two companies that train contractors and inspect properties for lead contamination. He is also a member of the state’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Task Force.

“There are state and federal requirements that aren’t being followed, so clearly there isn’t enough being done out there to bring people to justice and to correct the problem.”

The Attorney General’s Office has brought just one prosecution for lead paint issues in Buffalo this year.

On Sept. 19, James announced a lawsuit against a group of people and companies in the Buffalo area for allegedly violating local, state and federal laws by illegally allowing lead paint-related hazards to exist in their rental properties. The investigation began in 2017, the Attorney General’s Office said.

McLellan said prosecuting more bad landlords is the only way to get the message out that homes with lead paint hazards will not be tolerated.

“We talk about it because it never gets really any better,” McLellan said. “We haven’t done anything to make it better – the basement is still flooded.”

The Attorney General’s Office declined to respond to any questions sent by News 4 Investigates. Instead, a spokesman emailed a list of work by the office that he said benefits New Yorkers, particularly Western New Yorkers.

The list includes the one lead poisoning prosecution, going after unscrupulous debt collectors, a settlement with a Niagara Falls couple that owns dozens of dilapidated rental properties, and getting refunds to families who bought season passes to the now defunct Fantasy Island amusement park in Grand Island.

Zellner, Erie County’s Democratic Committee chairman, said James is “defending our state.”

“I think if you were making an argument about this you could say that she’s trying to make sure that New Yorkers have healthcare, that we have the sufficient funds to go after this on a local level, from a governmental level,” Zellner said.

“Because we’re not getting those resources when our taxes are being cut and our local governments have to cut resources.”

As for whether James has higher aspirations and is using her office to get there, Zellner said she isn’t filing frivolous lawsuits against the Trump team.

“You’re seeing substance come from these lawsuits,” he said.

A spokesman for the New York Attorney General said these are some of the actions James’ office has taken to “defend and fight for the people of Western New York since last year.”  The information below from the New York Attorney General’s Office is unedited. The attorney general refused to answer questions and declined numerous interview requests.

Attorney General James announced a lawsuit against a group of individuals and companies in the Buffalo region for repeatedly and persistently violating county, city, state, and federal laws by illegally allowing lead paint-related hazards to proliferate in their rental properties – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/citing-exposure-children-lead-poisoning-attorney-general-james-files-suit-against

Attorney General James filed a lawsuit to put an end to a flagrant debt collecting scheme based out of Buffalo that used extremely deceptive and abusive tactics to collect debts. Using a call spoofing service, the respondents disguised their phone numbers with contact information associated with the consumer’s local county court house or sheriff’s office. While impersonating these government officials, the debt collectors allegedly threatened consumers with pick-up orders, bench warrants, license suspensions, and other serious fraudulent threats. They also made these threats to consumers’ friends, family members, and employers. – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-moves-shut-down-illegal-debt-collecting-scheme

Attorney General James, in partnership with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, took action against a Buffalo-based debt collection operation accused of using illegal methods to collect debts. From at least 2015 through the present, the lawsuit alleges that defendants used deceptive, harassing, and improper methods to induce consumers to make payments to them in violation of multiple federal and state laws. The defendants are alleged to have deceived consumer debtors by making them believe that their debt was being bought by another company, when in fact their debt was being passed around different entities owned by the same people. – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/new-york-attorney-general-james-and-consumer-financial-protection-bureau-take

Attorney General James put a stop to a couple who own dozens of dilapidated rental properties across Niagara Falls that are in severe disrepair and pose a danger to the health and safety of tenants. Their properties have countless violations and complaints across various government agencies, many of which are still unresolved and remain open. The couple has agreed to sell their properties to an entity or entities that have an interest in restoring and preserving the apartments and enacting a long-term management plan to properly maintain the residences – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-letitia-james-delivers-justice-tenants-against-niagara-falls

Attorney General James filed a lawsuit against a Buffalo-area broker of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical supplies for repeated and widespread fraud during the COVID-19 public health crisis. The lawsuit charges IMPACT Medical & Surgical Solutions and its owner with fraudulently soliciting the state of New York, as well as hospitals and health care systems across the country with fake offers of critically-needed PPE, including 3M N95 respirator masks. IMPACT Medical and its owner took advantage of the desperate need for PPE by attempting to charge governments and health care systems exorbitant prices for fake items or products they could never deliver, potentially giving the owner and his company the opportunity to make millions in sales – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-sues-purported-ppe-broker-repeated-fraud-during

Attorney General Letitia James, led a coalition of nine states, in urging a federal court to halt an Environmental Protection Agency policy that has effectively waived industry compliance with pollution monitoring and reporting — cornerstone requirements of federal environmental and public health laws — due to COVID-19 public health crisis. This action follows a lawsuit that the coalition brought against the non-enforcement policy on May 13 for being overly broad, lacking transparency and accountability, and likely resulting in higher pollution emissions by industry and corresponding impacts on public health and the environment – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-urges-court-halt-trump-epas-non-enforcement-federal

Attorney General James negotiated a settlement guaranteeing that all consumers who purchased season passes, meal plans, and associated goods and services at the Western New York theme park Fantasy Island will be fully reimbursed for all advance purchases made for the 2020 season. After the Office of the Attorney General issued subpoenas to Fantasy Island’s owner and individuals associated with the company in March, the office negotiated an agreement to ensure full restitution for all consumers, totaling nearly $425,000 – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-secures-full-refunds-all-fantasy-island-consumers-western

Attorney General James announced a settlement banning Buffalo-based debt collector Robert Heidenreich, also known as “Bobby Rich,” from the debt collection industry for misleading consumers on how much money they owed and using illegal tactics to collect the inflated debt. In addition to the ban, the settlement also included a suspended judgment of $1.7 million – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-shuts-down-illegal-debt-collection-scheme

Attorney General James announced more than $2.7 million in grants for the Cities of Buffalo, Rochester, and Niagara Falls — part of a larger $8 million grant award for cities across the state — as part of the Cities for Responsible Investment and Strategic Enforcement (“Cities RISE”) program. The program provides municipalities the funding to launch innovative programs related to housing and strategic code enforcement (including for monitoring and removal of lead paint). Cities RISE aims to innovatively address and transform blighted, vacant, or poorly maintained problem properties through the use of housing and community data from various state agencies – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2020/attorney-general-james-announces-27-million-grants-western-new-york-implement-new

Attorney General James presented the Buffalo, Niagara Falls, and Amherst Police Departments with funds to support body-worn camera (BWC) programs. The Buffalo Police Department received $150,000 for 300 BWCs, the Amherst Police Department received $37,240 for 49 BWCs, and the Niagara Falls Police Department will receive $51,759 for 93 BWCs and eight BWC docking stations. These funds were provided by the Attorney General’s Capture an Account of a Material Situation (CAMS) program, which awarded 13 law enforcement agencies around the state with more than $1 million to purchase 891 body-worn cameras and 321 body-worn camera systems through the CAMS program – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/attorney-general-james-provides-funds-police-body-worn-cameras-buffalo-niagara

Attorney General James announced a settlement with Kaleida Health — the largest not-for-profit health care provider in Western New York — to resolve an investigation into the death of a 16-month-old pediatric resident in 2015, as well as the previous arrests of 17 caregivers in 2014, who were subsequently convicted of neglect of a resident with Huntington’s disease at the HighPointe on Michigan Health Care Facility in Buffalo – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/attorney-general-james-announces-500000-settlement-kaleida-health-following

Attorney General James announced that the City of Buffalo received a grant of $800,000 in the second round of the “Community Land Trusts Capacity Building Initiative,” which acquires and renovates distressed properties, as well as provides training and technical assistance to homeowners, and creates permanent affordable housing for the benefit of low- and middle-income families – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/attorney-general-james-awards-800000-buffalo-creation-and-preservation-affordable

Attorney General James and Special Agent in Charge Ray Donovan, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, New York Division announced the arrests of 23 people for their roles in two drug trafficking rings operating in New York City and Western New York. In two separate indictments, the 23 individuals were charged with trafficking heroin and cocaine from New York City and Puerto Rico into Western New York, including three individuals charged as Operating as a Major Trafficker, which carries a maximum of life in prison if convicted. During the course of the two investigations, 12 kilos of cocaine and two kilos of heroin with a street value of $1.3 million were recovered – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/ag-james-and-dea-announce-takedown-two-heroin-and-cocaine-trafficking-rings

Attorney General James announced a settlement banning Buffalo-based debt collection kingpin Douglas MacKinnon, and his companies Northern Resolution Group, LLC and Enhanced Acquisitions, LLC, as well as Mark Gray and his company Delray Capital, LLC, from the debt collection industry, and requiring the defendants to pay more than $66 million in restitution and penalties. MacKinnon, Gray, and their companies routinely inflated debts to try to collect more than consumers were legally obligated to pay. Collection offices working at the behest of MacKinnon and Gray used a variety of illegal tactics to obtain payments, such as threatening consumers with arrest – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/attorney-general-james-announces-66-million-settlement-shutting-down-illegal-debt

Attorney General James announced the recipients of $9 million in grants to address the growing statewide issue of “zombie homes” – vacant or abandoned homes that are not maintained during a prolonged foreclosure proceeding. The funding from “Zombies 2.0” is providing 48 municipalities with the resources needed to address housing vacancy and blight. The grants provide funds to municipalities to increase housing code enforcement, track and monitor vacant properties, and bolster legal enforcement capacity to ensure banks and mortgage companies comply with local and state law – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/attorney-general-james-announces-funds-combat-zombie-homes-and-revitalize

Attorney General James and the Federal Trade Commission announced court orders stopping a scheme to distribute and collect on millions of dollars in “phantom debts” — fake debts that consumers did not owe. The settlement permanently banned Buffalo-based defendants Hylan Asset Management, LLC, Andrew Shaevel, Jon Purizhansky, and their companies, from participating in any debt collection activities, distributing any debt, or processing payments on any debt – https://ag.ny.gov/press-release/2019/attorney-general-james-and-federal-trade-commission-halt-phantom-debt-collection

Additionally, since taking office, Attorney General James has led or joined 67 lawsuits against the Trump Administration for repeatedly violating the law and implementing policies that have specifically targeted Western New Yorkers, including, among others:

  • Severely handicap drivers in the Trusted Traveler’s NEXUS program — which, in Western New York alone, services 6,500 trips across the Peace Bridge, the Whirlpool Bridge, the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, and the Rainbow Bridge each day — and the FAST program — which 30,000 utilize — in addition to deny Western New Yorkers the ability to enroll or reenroll in the Global Entry program, costing Western New York’s local businesses billions of dollars each year and resulting in tens of thousands of jobs lost in the community.
  • Trying to strip Western New Yorkers of their health coverage, deny those with pre-existing conditions coverage altogether, and charge seniors more for prescription drugs.
  • Possibly reducing Western New York’s representation in Congress and in state and local legislatures and cutting federal funding to the community by at least millions of dollars by refusing to properly count Western New York residents in the 2020 Decennial Census.
  • Risk endangering the health and well-being of all Western New Yorkers and increase the likelihood of contracting COVID-19 by making it harder for documented immigrants to garner the health coverage and other benefits they need in this time of crisis.
  • Making it easier for employers to remove workplace protections for Western New York’s low-and middle-income workers and making it easier for employers to take part in wage theft and other labor law violations.
  • Attempting to limit Western New York workers’ rights to paid sick leave and emergency family leave during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Undermining United States Postal Service operations and making it harder for Western New Yorkers to receive delivery of critical bills, packages, medications, tax refunds, stimulus checks, and even ballots before the November general election.
  • Threatening the deportation of innocent international students at Western New York’s colleges and universities if they did not purposefully risk their health and the health of millions of others.
  • Unfairly targeting the hardworking taxpayers of Western New York by preventing residents from obtaining charitable deductions for contributions to local governments.
  • Dangerously targeting Western New York’s low-income communities of color by greenlighting various industries to pollute more and care less about Western New York’s air and water.

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