Eric Goode, 59, is a New York entrepreneur who is an owner of downtown establishments like the Bowery Hotel and the Waverly Inn. He was a creator of Area, the art-gallery-nightclub from the 1980s. He is also a conservationist with something of an obsession for turtles.
And now he is the plaintiff in a federal lawsuit that accuses President Donald Trump of violating the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, a once-obscure provision intended to prevent federal officials, including the president, from falling under the influence of foreign powers.
Goode is an unlikely, reluctant and unusually prominent plaintiff in the high-stakes constitutional lawsuit. “I do question the wisdom of it,” he said over a cappuccino in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel, which looks like a British manor’s library with a rain forest growing in it. “Hopefully I am not going to get audited and harassed for the next three years, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I’m worried about veiled forms of retribution.”
He was just back from a Rainforest Trust board meeting in Virginia and was headed to the West Coast outpost of his Turtle Conservancy in Ojai, California, where Galápagos tortoises and other creatures, some of which he has helped rescue from the black market, roam safely. His celebrity friends come there to roam, too. Their specific breeds, he doesn’t want to mention.
Emoluments Clause explained
Back to the Constitution. The foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits federal officials from accepting payment from foreign governments without the consent of Congress. It was written in the day when the founding fathers worried about kings trying to buy the favor of officials, and about such employees trying to make money off their positions.
It hasn’t been talked about much in the past 200 years. But because Trump maintains an ownership stake in the Trump Organization, with vast hotel, residential and commercial real estate holdings that foreign governments can direct business to, emoluments are once again a flash point.
Trump camp disputes claims
The White House directed requests for comment about the suit to the Trump Organization, where a spokeswoman did not respond to emails.
Sheri Dillon, a lawyer who represents the Trump Organization, has disputed that the Emoluments Clause applies to hotel rooms being rented by representatives of foreign governments, arguing that payments based on market rates for services do not represent an emolument. But in a news conference held just before Trump’s inauguration, she said that the company would donate profits derived from foreign governments to the Treasury.
Goode, whose hotels have catered to foreign dignitaries, isn’t buying that argument. “You can’t say you are going to donate the money from foreign dignitaries because it’s their collective entourages. How can you even quantify that?” he said. “The notion that the presidency doesn’t benefit your business is really absurd.”
Kuwaiti ambassador throws party
Of particular interest is the Trump International Hotel in Washington. The Kuwaiti ambassador to the United States, for example, held a party there in February, according to NPR. And Politico has reported that a lobbying firm working for Saudi Arabia paid for a room at the hotel after Inauguration Day.
In May, a Washington artist named Robin Bell managed to project the words “Pay Trump Bribes Here” onto the hotel’s facade. Goode had no hand in this, he said, but it tickled him. “I love it,” he said. “Reminds me a little of what Louie Psihoyos does."
Lawsuit originally filed Jan. 23
The emoluments lawsuit was originally filed on Jan. 23 by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a liberal government watchdog group whose board includes constitutional scholars and former White House ethics lawyers.
Some have argued, however, that the organization, known as CREW, lacked standing to file the case, saying that it is not sufficiently injured.
CREW disputes that it lacks standing. But it went looking for additional plaintiffs, which was not an easy sell. “We spoke to a number of hotel owners. Eric was the only appropriate hotel owner willing to join the suit,” said Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for CREW.
Suing the president “is a difficult decision for any person to make,” said Noah Bookbinder, the group’s executive director.
More plaintiffs added in April
In April, the suit was updated to add as plaintiffs Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a union that represents restaurant workers and owners, as well as Jill Phaneuf, an event-booker for the Glover Park Hotel, which is near embassies in Washington.
Then it landed Goode. “We really respect someone who is willing to stand on principle and take that plunge,” Bookbinder said.
Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional scholar who is among the lawyers representing CREW, said the addition of Goode helped buttress the suit’s legitimacy. “It makes it inconceivable that this lawsuit would be tossed out,” he said, offering a bit wishful thinking, as the Justice Department, which is representing Trump, will almost certainly try to move at some point to have the case dismissed. Then Tribe’s legal theory will really be tested.
Suit claims harm from Trump advantage
The lawsuit argues that Goode cannot compete in attracting hotel guests and diners representing foreign governments who believe they may gain favor with Trump by staying at his establishments. “As a hotel and restaurant owner, Mr. Goode will be harmed due to a loss of revenue by defendant’s ongoing financial interest in businesses which receive payments from foreign states, the United States, or state or local government.”
The lawsuit also lays out the popularity of Goode’s hotels and restaurants by quoting news articles including “Where the Beckhams and Kardashians Really Stay,” published by The Daily Mail. “I think this is the first-ever suit we’ve filed that involves the Kardashians,” Libowitz said.
The CREW lawsuit would be stronger if more hoteliers had joined, said Goode, who asked colleagues to take part. But there were no takers.
“You’d be surprised how incestuous the real estate business is in New York,” he said, “and how many people have deals with the Kushners and the Trumps and may fear retribution.”