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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan withholds money to sue Trump administration

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

Maryland lawmakers promised Attorney General Brian Frosh $1 million and five new lawyers to file lawsuits against the Trump administration next year, but Republican Gov. Larry Hogan left that money out of his budget.

Instead, the Hogan administration suggested Frosh divert money from his office’s Consumer Protection Division to finance litigation against the federal government.

Frosh, a Democrat, said that diverting those funds puts him in a tough position.

“I hate to have to choose between defending Marylanders against the Trump administration and defending them against people who are trying to rip them off in other contexts, but that’s the choice that’s been put before us this year,” Frosh said.

Since the General Assembly last year granted Frosh unilateral authority to sue the federal government, Frosh has joined 18 lawsuits against the Trump administration and led litigation on two others.

The highest profile suit he’s leading, filed jointly with the District of Columbia, alleges President Donald J. Trump’s income from his real estate empire and overseas investments violates the Constitution’s prohibition on the president having international conflicts of interest. The Trump administration has called the suit a political stunt.

Hogan last year objected to the legislature’s resolution cutting him out of Maryland’s process to initiate lawsuits, and refused to sign companion legislation that guaranteed the money and lawyers to pursue them.

The bill guaranteeing those resources became law without Hogan’s signature, but the administration used its budgeting power to withhold the additional $1 million and five state jobs from the attorney general’s budget.

“The administration takes its responsibility to find efficiency and savings in the state budget extremely seriously, and this is a perfect example of that,” Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said.

Mayer noted that the Consumer Protection Division of the attorney general’s office has $5 million from settlements of consumer lawsuits — most recently from the diesel emissions case against Volkswagen — that could be used for another purpose.

And philosophically, Mayer said, the governor objects to expending more state resources on suing the Trump administration because during the debate about expanding Frosh’s power, Frosh testified he could join lawsuits without additional expense.

Mayer said the attorney general does not have to curb consumer protection efforts in order to go after the Trump administration because the division already has more money than it can spend in a year.

“He misled the public on the cost of his expanded powers, and now he’s misleading the public about this,” Mayer said. “It’s always about politics with the attorney general, and that’s a shame.”

While Frosh did testify that there was not necessarily a cost to expanding his power for the first time since the office was created in 1864, the Democrats who dominate the Maryland General Assembly nonetheless voted to give Frosh more money to go after the Trump administration.

“We did it for a reason. We knew he would be busy,” said Del. Maggie McIntosh, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and a Democrat from Baltimore.

“This is a governor who doesn’t want to go after the Trump administration … whether it’s on immigration or a number of different issues,” she said. “That’s precisely why we gave the attorney general the powers we did, because they are core values that are important to our state.”

Nearly a year ago, Frosh had sought the governor’s approval to challenge the first version of Trump’s travel ban for people from some majority-Muslim countries. Hogan did not respond to Frosh’s request, and state lawmakers swiftly introduced a measure to bypass the governor in the future.

Frosh said his consumer protection efforts are funded entirely by money received from settlements and fines, and years with big payouts cover the costs in lean years.

He said his agency already is stretched thin on the lawsuits they’re engaged in against the Trump administration.

“Folks are working overtime, we’ve got volunteers helping us on some stuff, we’ve got pro-bono outside attorneys helping us on some stuff. We’re patching it together,” Frosh said.

Mayer said the funding disagreement is an example of the General Assembly’s habit of passing laws that mandate funding without coming up with a way to pay for it.

“Passing a law that mandates we spend money doesn’t create money,” Mayer said.

Frosh said the work load on the case about Trump’s financial interests, which relies on the previously little-known Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, will ramp up dramatically as soon as the case moves into the discovery phase. Frosh is seeking copies of Trump’s tax returns. The president broke with tradition and did not release them to the public while he was running for office.

“We’re going to need manpower just to sort through information that we get,” Frosh said. “I mean, his tax returns are probably a foot and a half tall each, and that’s just going to be scraping the surface. We’re going to need bodies to get this stuff reviewed.”

ecox@baltsun.com

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