Cork Wine Bar owners Khalid Pitts and Diane Gross filed an unfair competition lawsuit against Donald Trump and the Trump International Hotel in DC Wednesday night, alleging that the president’s continued affiliation with the government-owned property puts competing businesses at a disadvantage.
Scott Rome, one of Cork Wine Bar’s attorneys, says government officials, lobbyists, foreign dignitaries, and others seeking political influence—part of the restaurant’s clientele—now “feel pressure” or an “obligation” to frequent the hotel. “If they have a party to book, they’re going to book it there first, whether to gain influence with the president, to gain influence with the administration,” Rome says. “And he shows up there on weekends, so you get personal face time by going there. It seems to us to be a clear situation in which he’s using his office of the president to get a financial gain at the expense of local businesses.”
The Trump organization calls the lawsuit “a wild publicity stunt completely lacking in legal merit.”
Cork Wine Bar, which hosts political fundraisers and international law firms, saw “significantly less income” after this inauguration than they’ve seen after other inaugurations, but Rome says the crux of the case isn’t going to be “look at our balance sheet” or pointing to a single specific incident in which a dinner was booked at Cork Wine Bar then switched to the Trump hotel. “It’s just that there’s more business that could be going to them and it’s not,” he says. “We feel like every place in town now is second place if you want to do business with the government in any way.”
Pitts and Gross are no strangers to politics. Gross was a civil rights attorney who worked as counsel to former US Senator Barbara Mikulski; Pitts has a rich history in the field, including a stint as a campaign director for Service Employees International Union and another as a political director at the Sierra Club. He ran for DC Council in 2014.
As part of their case, Cork Wine Bar’s attorneys point to a clause in the hotel’s lease with the General Services Administration that says no elected official should have “any share” or “any benefit” from the agreement. Legal experts have argued that when Trump became president, the hotel was in breach of contract of the lease.
“It’s our position that the Trump organization and Trump himself are using those conflicts of interests to get an unfair advantage against DC businesses,” Rome says.
Plenty of stories have been written about the Trump hotel becoming a destination for those looking to gain favor with the president. In November, the Post covered a gathering over about 100 foreign dignitaries at the hotel. “Why wouldn’t I stay at his hotel blocks from the White House, so I can tell the new president, ‘I love your new hotel!’ Isn’t it rude to come to his city and say, ‘I am staying at your competitor?’” one anonymous diplomat told the Post. Trump has previously said hotel profits from foreign governments will be donated to the US Treasury, but it’s unclear exactly how that’s working in practice.
The hotel owns its restaurant, BLT Prime, which is why the steakhouse itself isn’t named as a defendant. BLT Prime’s parent company Esquared Hospitality has a management agreement to oversee its operations.
Rome says that the lawsuit isn’t just an anti-Trump stunt. “From my position, if a Democratic politician was hurting clients in this way, I would have the same response,” he says. His co-counsel, Mark Zaid, known for representing whistleblowers, journalists, and others wronged by the government, has brought lawsuits against past administrations as well. Bolstering the legal team will be two George Washington University law professors: Alan Morrison, who specializes in public interest law, and Steven Schooner, an expert in government contracting.
All the lawyers are working on the case pro bono, and the lawsuit isn’t seeking any money. Rather, they’re looking for a court order to stop the “unfair competition,” whether that means Trump divests or sells the hotel or takes his name off of it and transforms it into something else.
Cork Wine Bar may not be the last DC restaurant to file such a lawsuit against the Trump hotel either. Rome says the lawyers are actively talking to other potential plaintiffs as well. A press conference about the lawsuit is scheduled this morning, so stay tuned for more information.
The lawsuit comes amid two other ongoing legal battles between restaurants and the Trump hotel. Celebrity chefs Geoffrey Zakarian and José Andrés have been locked in litigation since they pulled plans to open restaurants in the hotel in 2015 after Trump kicked off his presidential campaign with disparaging remarks about Mexican immigrants. So far, there are no signs of settling. Pretrial conferences in both cases are scheduled for May.