A senior lawyer today told a judge how an unexplained wealth probe against Donald Trump is a “political hot potato” which the Scottish Government is entitled to order.
Advocate Aidan O’Neill QC told Lord Sandison how Holyrood could lawfully order an Unexplained Wealth Order investigation against the businessman.
The Court of Session heard Mr O’Neill say that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s previous claims that her administration couldn’t order the probe were incorrect.
The court was told Ms Sturgeon spoke after opposition politicians called on her government to investigate how the Trump Organisation paid for Scottish golf courses, including his one at the Menie Estate in Balmedie.
But Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament that the responsibility for the investigation lay with the Crown Office’s Civil Recovery Unit – which was politically independent from the government.
The then Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf later announced that Ms Sturgeon was mistaken – and that the law did allow for the Scottish Government to launch an unexplained wealth order investigation.
‘Sometimes politically controversial issues are too hot to handle’
On Tuesday, Mr O’Neill said that the government had failed to understand the powers given to it by a piece of UK Parliament legislation, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
He said by looking at the legislation, the court would see that it is the Scottish Ministers and not Scotland’s most senior prosecutor, the Lord Advocate, responsible for ordering an Unexplained Wealth Order investigation.
Mr O’Neill – who is acting for international human rights organisation AVAAZ – added: “We say that the Scottish Ministers have failed to understand their roles and responsibilities to unexplained wealth orders and more specifically to unexplained wealth orders as regards politically exposed persons.
“They’ve misdirected themselves in law, they’ve misdirected themselves in correspondence which has been gone back and forth between AVAAZ and the Scottish Ministers. They’ve misdirected themselves in Parliament.
“The issue of the seeking of unexplained wealth orders against politically exposed persons is a political hot potato.
“Foreign politically exposed persons being asked to explain to the court in Scotland the sources of their wealth which allowed them to purchase properties in Scotland is clearly going to be at some level, a politically controversial issue.
“Sometimes politically controversial issues are too hot to handle for politicians and it would be nice if it could be hived off to the non-political, prosecutorial role of the Lord Advocate.
“But I say what that does is that it reveals a misunderstanding of the rather complicated provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act and that misunderstanding can only be understood and unravelled if we look through the provisions of the Proceeds of Crime Act in some detail because at some level the Scottish Ministers have misdirected themselves precisely because they haven’t understood the detail of the Proceeds of Crime Act provisions.”
Ministers contesting the judicial review
Mr O’Neill was speaking during a hearing brought by his client AVAAZ. It is seeking an order – forcing the government to launch an unexplained wealth order investigation that concerns how Mr Trump obtained the funding for the Menie golf course in Aberdeenshire and the Turnberry resort in Ayrshire.
The Scottish Ministers are contesting the judicial review and are seeking to have the case dismissed.
The Scottish Green Party first called for an unexplained wealth order amid questions about how Mr Trump had managed to finance the purchases of the courses at Turnberry in 2014 and at Menie in 2006.
The UK government introduced the orders to help investigations into money laundering and other criminal financial activity.
Patrick Harvie, the Greens co-leader, has said Trump’s unusual pattern of spending and the ongoing civil and criminal cases in the US provided Scottish authorities with the grounds to investigate the businessman.
Sarah Malone, Executive Vice President, Trump International, Scotland, branded the legal action a “ridiculous charade”.
“What a terrible indictment of Scotland and its reputation as a country to invest in, and do business,” she said. “Here we are facing the greatest economic crisis since the Second World War, and we are clogging up the courts with this ridiculous charade, costing taxpayers huge sums of money.
“This sort of self-indulgent, baseless nonsense, contrived by political activists, serves only to hurt the hard-working people of Scotland who they ultimately want to put out of work by attacking legitimate businesses. Their claims are completely false.
“The Scottish Government righty rejected their petition, which is nothing more than a disgraceful attempt to be relevant and hit out at the 2024 presumptive President of the United States.”
The judicial review is expected to take two days. The hearing continues.