Probe into Holyrood refusal to investigate Trump courses granted

Lord Sandison ruled that US based Avaaz Foundation can bring a judicial review to the Court of Session. 

Probe into Holyrood refusal to investigate Trump courses granted Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images via Getty Images
Trump: Investigation into Holyrood refusal to investigate how former president paid for Scottish golf courses granted.

A judge has given permission for an international human rights organisation to launch proceedings probing Holyrood refusal to investigate how Donald Trump paid for two Scottish golf courses.

Lord Sandison ruled on Wednesday that US based Avaaz Foundation can bring a judicial review to the Court of Session. 

The group want Scotland’s highest civil court to investigate whether Holyrood acted lawfully when it refused to launch an Unexplained Wealth Order investigation against the former US President.

Avaaz want the government to commission investigators to find out how Mr Trump was able to finance the purchases of golf courses at Turnberry, Ayrshire, in 2014 and at Menie, Aberdeenshire, in 2006.

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At proceedings earlier this year, Lord Sandison concluded that Avaaz’s proposed case passed legal tests and it could proceed. 

However, he also concluded that the organisation hadn’t brought the action within three months of the government’s refusal. 

Rules at the Court of Session state that such judicial reviews can only proceed within three months of a government decision. Actions raised outside of that time period can only proceed in exceptional circumstances. 

In a ruling published by Lord Sandison on Wednesday, the judge said that Avaaz’s bid passed that test. 

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He wrote: “I grant permission for the petition to proceed without condition or restriction.”

The Trumps have branded claims that the golf courses were acquired illegally as having “no basis in fact”.

The judgement tells of how Unexplained Wealth Orders form part of the 2002 Proceeds of Crime Act.

At proceedings earlier this year, Avaaz’s advocate Kay Springham QC made reference to how the Trump Organisation’s former Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg had been charged in New York with alleged tax evasion and fraud.

The court had heard on a previous occasion how Mr Weisselberg had involvement with Mr Trump’s business interests in Scotland. 

Ms Springham said: “The subject of.. the Unexplained Wealth Order is a former President of the United States – that position could hardly be more important. 

“It’s also evident from the matters set out in the petition that there are real and substantial concerns about financial arrangements of the Trump Organisation of which Mr Trump is the sole or principle owner. 

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“The reason why it is important in relation to this particular individual – if it is the case that there is the basis for an unexplained wealth order then it would be for Mr Trump to explain how it is that he was able to acquire substantial and important assets within Scotland.”

But Lord Sandison asked Ms Springham whether her clients were more interested in pursuing their own political agenda than helping clarify public law issues surrounding unexplained wealth order investigations. 

He said: “One does not need to follow the news too closely to know that former President Trump is regarded as a divisive figure and a divisive figure against whom various parts of certainly the American population and others wish to take such action as they can in whatever forum they can and it might be thought quite easy to dress up important, undoubtedly important issues of public law – that is the proper application of Unexplained Wealth Orders in Scotland – to dress up as that something that is actually an ad hominem attack on former President Trump.

“Do you see the point I’m making?”

But Ms Springham replied that her clients were keen to see the Scottish Government comply with their legal obligations. 

In his judgement, Lord Sandison said that he was concerned that Avaaz wanted to launch an action at the Court of Session for a political attack on Mr Trump. 

Speaking about a statement issued by Avaaz, Lord Sandison wrote: “On the other hand, the tenor of the petitioner’s briefing paper of April 2019 gives plain grounds for scepticism that its motivation in bringing the present proceedings is truly a desire to clarify the somewhat technical aspects of the general law which arise, as opposed to a desire to further a political agenda to oppose the interests of Mr Trump by any means available.”

But he said he was content that Avaaz’s action could help clarify the law on Unexplained Wealth Order investigation – and that this could help future probes. 

He wrote: “I enquired of counsel for the petitioner in the course of the hearing on July 29 whether it would remain interested in taking the petition further were I to restrict the grounds upon which it would proceed to those addressing the general legal position, and to exclude from the application the specific issues concerning Mr Trump’s case. 

“On instruction, counsel replied that the petitioner would, albeit reluctantly, wish to proceed with the petition on that basis. 

“I see no reason not to take that at face value and in any event would have required a good deal of persuasion that the apparent subjective motive of a petitioner in making an application of this sort ought to prevent the ventilation of what are in any event, objectively viewed, important matters of clear public interest.”