This story has been updated.
Last week, an Advisory Neighborhood Commission voted unanimously to support a petition that seeks to revoke the Trump International Hotel’s liquor license on the grounds that its owner — you know, the president of the United States — is not of “good character.”
The ANC is not even the one where the luxury hotel is located.
During its July 11 meeting, the commissioners of ANC 4C — which represents Petworth, Columbia Heights and other neighborhoods north of Trump’s downtown property — voted 8 to 0 to support a complaint that looks to strip the hotel of its liquor license. In June, a group of religious and judicial leaders petitioned the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to force the Trump hotel to justify why it should keep its alcohol permit when D.C. law states that license applicants must be of “good character and generally fit for the responsibilities of licensure.”
“It is our considered view that Donald Trump, the true and actual owner of the Trump International Hotel, is not a person of good character, doesn’t meet the D.C. Code … requirements and therefore the license should be revoked,” ANC 4C chairman, Bennett Hilley, and vice chair, Charlotte Nugent, wrote in a letter to the director of the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. (The emphasis, incidentally, was the authors’.)
Zach Teutsch introduced the resolution to his fellow ANC 4C commissioners. He says that it’s “correct and very important” that D.C. law requires liquor license applicants to be of good character. “And this is a way to see how serious we are about it as a community,” he adds.
According to ABRA spokesman Max Bluestein, anyone or any civic group can file a complaint against a licensee, at any time during the license’s period, but an ANC cannot file an official protest against a license if the business is not located within 600 feet of its jurisdiction. What’s more, an official protest can be filed only when a liquor license is first being considered by the ABC board or when it’s up for renewal, which in the case of the Trump hotel will be in 2019.
The ABC board is required to respond to all complaints, such as ANC 4C’s letter, within 90 days, Bluestein says.
Seven District residents — three reverends, two rabbis and two retired judges — filed the original complaint to the ABC board in mid-June. The complaint lays out in granular detail what Americans have been reading for months about President Trump: the accusations of sexual misconduct, the contractors who claim that Trump’s businesses haven’t paid them, the fraudulent practices of the now-defunct Trump University, the pattern of lies and deceptions and other allegations.
“This is not a political stunt,” says Joshua Levy, the attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of the seven residents. The petition, Levy says, is funded by the Campaign for Accountability and Transparency Inc., a nonprofit group so new it does not yet have a Web presence. The group is backed by Jerry Hirsch, an Arizona Republican who practiced law and operated real estate and technology companies before turning his attention to philanthropy.
The complaint argues that even though the president put his business holdings, including the hotel, into the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, he is still the “true and actual” owner of the hotel and its liquor license. News reports have already noted that Trump can withdraw money from the trust, which is controlled by his adult sons.
Trump, the complaint says, “is subject to the same good character requirement that applies to all other licensees. There is no statutory exception for the rich or the powerful.”
ANC 2C, the commission that covers downtown Washington, including the Trump hotel, has no plans to weigh in on the June complaint, says Chairman John Tinpe. The ANC, Tinpe adds, supported the hotel’s liquor license when it was initially before the board for approval. Multiple sources say that an ANC’s support is given great weight by the board when making a decision on whether to approve a license, although the body can act independently from a neighborhood commission’s recommendation.
Tinpe says ANC 2C stands by its original decision. “We do not take into consideration politics,” Tinpe says. “It would be overreaching to comment on the character of somebody.” He says it’s a slippery slope should an ANC decide to take the measure of a licensee’s character. Such action could lead to a rush of similar protests about other owners.
“Now, if there is criminal activity, that is different,” Tinpe adds. “But the subject of character is something different.” The Washington Post’s Colbert I. King made a similar point in a recent column, quoting from a 1981 liquor license case, Haight v. ABC Board, in which the D.C. Court of Appeals seemed to argue that good character merely prohibits “illegal conduct and no more.”
But in a supplement to his original complaint, Levy argues that both Tinpe and King misunderstand what the Appeal Court was saying in Haight v. ABC Board. The court specifically wrote, “We do not necessarily suggest that the [ABC] Board could never require more of its license applicants than mere compliance with the law. But in order to do so the Board must put applicants on fair notice by making public its criteria.”
In Haight v. ABC Board, the liquor board decided not to consider the applicant’s history of selling legal drug paraphernalia because the applicant had not been notified that such behavior could put a license application in jeopardy. At present, D.C. law does not define “good character,” says ABRA’s Bluestein.
In the meantime, ABRA’s enforcement division is still investigating the June complaint. Once investigators submit their findings to the ABC board, the body will have 30 days to schedule a “show cause” hearing in which the Trump hotel would have to justify why it should still hold a liquor license. The board could also decide, says Bluestein, that no further action is necessary in the case.
Bluestein says ABRA is still researching past cases to see if a liquor license has ever been revoked or denied because of an owner’s character.