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Wine bar owners sue Trump, D.C. hotel, saying unfair competition

By Allen Cone
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Wine bar owners sue Trump, D.C. hotel, saying unfair competition
Cork Wine Bar owners Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts appear at a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday announcing the filing of a lawsuit "alleging unfair competition" against Donald Trump and his Trump International Hotel. Photo by Mike Theiler/UPI | License Photo

March 9 (UPI) -- Two owners of a wine bar sued Donald Trump and Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., saying the president's affiliation with the government-owned property has an unfair financial advantage.

Cork Wine Bar, which is owned by Diane Gross and Khalid Pitts, does business by hosting political fundraisers and international law firms. The married couple say they had "significantly less income" after Trump's inauguration, compared with Barack Obama's ceremonies in 2009.

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They conducted a news conference Thursday to announce they filed a lawsuit Wednesday in D.C. Superior Court against Trump and the $212 million hotel he opened in the fall.

"This is a company town and the business is the government," Pitts said to The Washington Post. "We have people, individuals, companies in the U.S. and around the world who do business with the government. And the business leader of the government is the president of the United States."

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Pitts and Gross opened their restaurant among pawnshops and vacant storefronts in 2008. Then more than a year later, they opened Cork Market & Tasting Room. More restaurants then opened nearby.

Their restaurant is 1 1/2 miles from the Trump's hotel and its BLT Prime restaurant in Northwest Washington.

"It's just that there's more business that could be going to them and it's not," Scott Rome, one of Cork Wine Bar's attorneys with the Veritas Law firm, said to the Washingtonian. "We feel like every place in town now is second place if you want to do business with the government in any way."

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Scott said groups seeking political influence, including government officials, lobbyists and foreign dignitaries, are part of the restaurant's clientele. And they "feel pressure" or an "obligation" to take their business to the Trump 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 said. "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."

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In the suit, Cork Wine Bar's attorneys note 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.

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"It's our position that the Trump organization and Trump himself are using those conflicts of interests to get an unfair advantage against D.C. businesses," Rome said.

In November, The Washington Post reported on a gathering of 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 said hotel profits from foreign governments will be donated to the U.S. Treasury.

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The owners aren't looking for money, but instead a court order to stop the "unfair competition." That includes Trump divesting or selling the hotel.

The lawyers are working on the case pro bono and no money is sought by the couple.

"The Supreme Court has made clear numerous times that president is subject to the laws of the country just like any other person," Paul F. Rothstein, a professor at Georgetown University Law School, said to The Washington Post.

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Gross was a civil rights lawyer and general counsel to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Pitts is the national political director for the Sierra Club.

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