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Groups File Ethics Complaints Over State Department's Mar-a-Lago Blog Post

Ethics groups have filed complaints over a blog post written by a bureau of the State Department that used glowing language to describe Mar-a-Lago.
Image: President Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen in Palm Beach
Palm trees line a driveway on President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, on April 16.Yuri Gripas / Reuters

An ethics advocacy group has filed a complaint calling for an investigation into the State Department's glowing description of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club on its website.

The complaint, filed Tuesday with the Office of Government Ethics by the group Common Cause, is in response to a blog post published on the State Department's ShareAmerica website that referred to Mar-a-Lago as the "winter White House" and noted that it is open to paying members.

Published in early April, prior to a meeting with China's president Xi Jinping at the Palm Beach club, the post detailed the history of Mar-a-Lago and appeared on websites for the U.S. Embassies in the United Kingdom and Albania.

By Monday the post was removed, replaced by a brief note that said it was only meant to inform. "We regret any misperception and have removed the post," the note said. State Department Acting Spokesperson Mark Toner said Tuesday it was not intended to promote any private business.

Common Cause called the post an "abuse of taxpayer funds." The group's president accused the Trump administration of failing to set boundaries between the president's businesses and the business of the government.

"It falls to the ethics offices of these agencies to enforce our ethics laws and standards, even if it means running afoul of the White House," Common Cause President Karen Hobert Flynn said in a statement.

Related: State Department Posts on Mar-a-Lago Raise Ethics Concerns

Another ethics organization, American Oversight, also filed a complaint on Tuesday calling for an investigation into how and why the promotional Mar-a-Lago article was written.

State Department Acting Spokesperson Mark Toner on Tuesday said the post was written by the International Information Program, which was created under the Obama administration, and the post was not directed by anyone higher in the Trump administration.

No one outside of IIP reviewed it, but additional scrutiny is being considered for the future, Toner said. He said "there was no malice of forethought with regards to this article," and was simply meant to give information about a place frequently in the news.

"It was meant to provide historical information and context relevant to the conduct of U.S. diplomacy, and was not intended to endorse or promote any private enterprise," Toner said.

Democratic Congressman Mark Takano of California was among several lawmakers critical of the Mar-a-Lago post.

"So nice to see taxpayer money being used promote Mar-a-Lago," Takano said on Twitter Monday. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi questioned why the State Department was “promoting the President’s private club."

This isn't the first time the Florida club has been at the center of controversy.

Last week, reports surfaced that Trump had previously met with two former Colombian presidents at his Florida home to discuss opposition to a Colombian peace deal with revolutionaries. The White House denied the reports, claiming Trump only briefly spoke to the two presidents after bumping into them at the club.

After North Korea conducted a missile test in February, Trump appeared to hold an open-air strategy session during a dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with aides holding cell phones to illuminate documents, CNN reported at the time.

Since taking office, Trump has spent half of his weekends at Mar-a-Lago. Following his election, the club's membership fees doubled to $200,000, with critics asserting that those who can afford the high costs have unique access to the president.