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Scottish judge permits legal case over Trump’s golf course spending

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The global campaign group Avaaz has been allowed to take legal action over the Scottish government’s refusal to investigate the source of Donald Trump’s wealth.

A Scottish judge has granted Avaaz permission to challenge a decision by ministers to reject calls for an unexplained wealth order (UWO) into how Trump raised the hundreds of millions of pounds spent on his two Scottish golf courses near Aberdeen and Turnberry.

Known as “McMafia orders”, they give Scottish prosecutors and courts the legal power to investigate how people, such as senior figures in organised crime, came by the money used to buy homes, cars, yachts and other assets.

The court’s decision is the latest blow for Trump and his family, who are under numerous investigations by prosecutors in the US over the former president’s tax affairs and finances.

The Trump Organization robustly rejects allegations that the former president used unlawful sources to finance his golf courses in Scotland; his son Eric Trump has said the family used its own money to do so.

Attention has focused on whether Trump borrowed the money from Deutsche Bank, or from unknown overseas backers, including Russian sources. So far, there has been no proof of any illicit funding of Trump’s businesses.

Avaaz, a crowd-sourced campaign group, took the case after Scottish ministers rejected calls from Patrick Harvie, the Scottish Greens co-leader, and other MSPs for an investigation into how Trump bought and funded both courses.

Humza Yousaf, the then justice secretary, told Harvie that a decision to pursue a UWO was solely a matter for the lord advocate, Scotland’s chief prosecutor, whose decisions had to be “free of political interference”.

After Harvie challenged that, the government admitted that ministers had the responsibility to request a McMafia order investigation. Even so, the Scottish National party and Conservatives rejected a Holyrood motion from the Greens, backed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats, calling for one earlier this year by 89 to 32 votes.

Before the vote, Eric Trump said: “Patrick Harvie is nothing more than a national embarrassment with his pathetic antics that only serve himself and his political agenda.”

In a ruling issued on Wednesday by the court of session, Scotland’s civil court, Lord Sandison said he believed the Avaaz case “had real prospects of success [and that] there was a sensible legal argument to be had on the matters raised by the petition”.

Nick Flynn, the legal director at Avaaz, said: “Armed with a proper understanding of the law, we hope ministers agree that Trump’s purchase demands the transparency that only a UWO can bring. Scotland’s reputation for upholding the rule of law and combating money laundering depends on it.”

Harvie said: “I’m glad we are a step forward in getting some clarity over why Trump’s business dealings in Scotland haven’t been investigated. It should never have got to the stage of a legal challenge from an NGO for the Scottish government to confirm or deny whether they will seek a McMafia order.”

Trump’s critics believe there are significance questions about how he financed the original purchase of both Menie, north of Aberdeen, in 2008, and the conversion of what was then a small coastal country estate into an 18-hole championship golf course with boutique hotel.

That was followed by Trump’s purchase of the far larger Turnberry golf resort and its five-star hotel in 2014.

Trump spent tens of millions of pounds upgrading the hotel, adding a new ballroom, then redesigned both Turnberry’s golf courses. Overall, the Trump project is estimated to have cost in excess of £120m.

Recent accounts show the Turnberry business owes Trump £114m, and the Aberdeenshire estate £44m.

Sandison allowed the Avaaz application to proceed even though it was technically time-barred, and also decided a future judicial review could investigate Trump’s finances, not just the dry technical question of whether ministers can order a UWO inquiry.

After rejecting the government’s protests that the petition was filed too late, the judge ruled there were clear matters of public importance raised by the Avaaz case.

“The question comes to be whether the petition raises matters of such live and substantive public importance as to render it in the interests of justice to allow it to proceed out of time,” Sandison said.