Judge slams Trump suit aimed at blocking N.Y. attorney general probe

Julia Nikhinson/AP Photo

A federal judge has turned down an effort by former President Donald Trump to block aspects of New York Attorney General Tish James' drive to place the Trump business empire under court supervision due to what she claims is persistent fraud.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Middlebrooks coupled his ruling Wednesday with a stern warning to Trump and his lawyers that their legal tactics could result in sanctions from the court.

"This litigation has all the telltale signs of being both vexatious and frivolous," Middlebrooks wrote in a footnote to his eight-page order turning down Trump's attempt to get emergency relief to stop James from gaining access to details about a trust that controls some Trump businesses.

Trump filed the suit in a state court in Palm Beach, Fla., last month, but James had the case transferred to the nearby federal court where Middlebrooks sits.

After an investigation that spanned more than three years, James filed suit in September against the Trump Organization, contending that the business engaged in repeated fraud in real estate, tax and insurance transactions.

Under New York law, businesses engaged in repeated illegal behavior can face a range of sanctions that could make it almost impossible for his firms to do business in the state. Last month, a state judge in Manhattan agreed to James' request for a court-appointed monitor to oversee the Trump businesses while the case is litigated. Trump is appealing the ruling.

Middlebrooks — an appointee of President Bill Clinton — said the Florida suit lacked merit for a variety of reasons, including that James isn't located in Florida. He also noted that a previous lawsuit Trump filed in federal court in New York to try to shut down James' probe was tossed out.

The prospect of Middlebrooks imposing sanctions on Trump or his attorneys for pursuing litigation the judge views as "frivolous" is a real one. Just last month, Middlebrooks ordered four attorneys to pay a total of $66,000 for their involvement in filing a prior Trump suit against former Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, former FBI Director James Comey and others alleging a conspiracy to falsely tie Trump to Russia during the 2016 presidential campaign.

"These were political grievances masquerading as legal claims,” Middlebrooks wrote then. “This cannot be attributed to incompetent lawyering. It was a deliberate use of the judicial system to pursue a political agenda.”

Trump's lawyers are appealing those sanctions and Middlebrooks ruling throwing the 2016-related case out.

There were indications of disagreement on Trump's team about whether to file the suit Middlebrooks that ruled on Wednesday. A Florida-based lawyer deeply involved in the James case in New York and other Trump legal matters, Christopher Kise, emphasized last month that he wasn't behind the Florida suit aiming to preserve the secrecy of Trump's trust there.

"I don’t represent the trust in Florida,” Kise said. “I didn’t file it, obviously.”

Alan Garten, a longtime top lawyer for the Trump Organization, opposed suing James in Florida, The New York Times reported last month.