The office of anti-Trump?

New York News

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?

NEW YORK STATE (WIVB) — 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 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.”

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 October 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 has 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 September 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 did not respond to any questions and declined numerous interview requests by NEWS10’s sister station in Buffalo. Instead, a spokesman emailed a list of work by the office that he said benefits New Yorkers, and action to “defend and fight for the people.”

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.

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