New York Prosecutors Zeroing In On Trump Properties' Incredibly Variable Valuations
According to the Washington Post, the Trump Organization is under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney and New York attorney general for allegedly offering extremely different estimates of its properties' values, depending on whether the company was seeking to lower its taxes or use the properties to make money. This appears to be a new branch of the investigations already underway into a boatload of possible financial crimes by Donald Trump's business. WaPo reports specifically on the insane fluctuations in values on four properties, including a Trump golf course in California, which New York Attorney General Letitia James said is under her office's purview because Trump was a New York resident at the time.
The top f'rinstance in the Post story is a Trump office building at 40 Wall Street in Manhattan, which the Trump Org said was worth $527 million in a list of assets when the company was seeking investors in 2012. WaPo notes that would have made it "among the most valuable in New York" at the time. But miraculously, a few months later, the building had suddenly lost nearly all its value:
[T]he Trump Organization told property tax officials that the entire 70-story building was worth less than a high-end Manhattan condo: just $16.7 million, according to newly released city records.
That was less than one-thirtieth the amount it had claimed the year before.
Isn't that cute? James says she's considering a lawsuit, and according to insiders interviewed by the Post, criminal charges may result from that new grand jury that was empaneled in the case last month. Gosh, what a shame.
Before we look at the other hinky property cases, though, there's the standard reminder that the entire real estate business is full of creeps and sleazy practices that are actually legal anyway, so just showing that the Trump Organization submitted wildly different valuations of its properties is not in itself enough to prove a crime:
[E]xtreme is not the same as illegal. Legal experts said that if prosecutors wish to prove a crime, they will need to do more than simply prove Trump's valuations were wrong.
"Is it an overly optimistic? Is it an enthusiastic perception?" said Robert Masters, a former top aide to the district attorney in Queens. "Does that make it a lie?"
Masters said prosecutors would probably need to show that the figures were wrong on purpose — falsified deliberately, with an intent to deceive a lender or the government. Masters said that may require a witness on the inside, who could explain the decision-making behind the numbers.
"Is there somebody there who can translate the books?" he said.
Gosh golly, is there? Like maybe Trump Org CFO Allen Weisselberg, who was indicted in July on tax frauding charges? Given Trumpworld's shaky one-way code of omerta, he may or may not flip to help out prosecutors in a plea deal.
Former Trump fixer and consigliere Michael Cohen testified to Congress in 2019 that Trump's use of highly creative and variable valuations of his properties is an important feature of his dogvomit financial genius. At the time, Cohen said "Mr. Trump is a cheat," in response to which Trump insisted that Michael Cohen was a lying liar who lied all the time. (Especially when he was doing it for Trump, which Trump didn't say, but COME ON.)
As part of the investigations, WaPo reports, James's office has "commissioned its own appraisals of some Trump properties, to provide a standard to which they could compare Trump's valuations," and both her office and the Manhattan DA have collected assloads of documents concerning the claims Trump Org made about the four properties in the new investigations, including
reams of emails, planning documents and financial data, even seeking the initiation fees Trump charged golf club members as far back as a decade ago. In Los Angeles, they have asked for geology reports on the rock layers under Trump's course — where the value was affected by a history of landslides.
They have also sought detailed records from two outside companies that worked with the Trump Organization to formulate these valuations: appraisal firm Cushman & Wakefield and law firm Morgan Lewis. In court filings, prosecutors have referred to emails in which they said Trump executives or a Morgan Lewis lawyer pushed appraisers to change their findings.
In addition to the big swing in value of the property at 40 Wall Street, Trump's seaside golf course in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, has been the subject of crazily different values reported by the company. It's a bit of a problematic property for Trump! In 1999, before Trump bought the place, the golf course's entire 18th hole fell into the ocean, but Mr. Art of the Deal decided it'd be great to develop luxury homes around the golf course. A section of that plan was nixed by city officials, because they had this ridiculous notion that selling lots on top of "a layer of slippery ash inside the cliffs made [them] vulnerable to" more landslides.
Stevie Nicks had no comment on the landslides.
Naturally, when it came time for property taxes, Trump said that entire 17-acre parcel was only worth $900,000, because what good was it for building on? But in 2014, the Trump Org applied for a "conservation easement" that would allow it to write off the property as a charitable donation that would be left undeveloped. You know, because Trump is a lover of the wild untrammeled wilderness.
The bigger that value was, the bigger the tax deduction could be. In that case, Trump's company, relying on an appraisal from Cushman & Wakefield, said the plot was worth at least $25 million.
In 2012, Trump's "Statement of Financial Condition"— a document that is typically used to demonstrate value to potential lenders — said the course had "52 home sites available for sale," indicating a potential source of future cash flow.
At the time, however, the club had only received approvals for 36 home sites and six of them had already been sold, according to public records.
That's pretty creative, and about 27 times the value the company said it should be taxed on.
When that little situation was reported in May by Reuters, James's office requested city records "covering the history of the club's efforts to get home lots approved," and on the geology underneath the golf course, too. We're guessing James wanted to determine whether it was too unstable to build homes on, but maybe she also wanted to see whether there might be a secret Russian submarine underneath all that.
The investigation is also looking at a couple of properties in Westchester County, New York, north of Manhattan. One is the 212-acre Seven Springs estate Trump bought for $7.5 million in 1995, which Wonkette has written much about before. The other is another golf club, this one in Briarcliff Manor:
In 2015, his company sued the local property tax authorities to lower that club's valuation, saying the property was worth just $1.4 million. If the town had agreed, that would have reduced the club's tax bill by 90 percent.
But in the same year, when Trump filed his financial disclosures as a candidate for president, he listed the club's value as being more than 35 times higher: "Over $50 million."
And again, while these may seem to be extreme examples, this sort of fuckery goes on all the time in the commercial real estate business, which is likely to be the Trump Org's defense. Again, as the Post 'splains,
New York law makes it a felony to falsify business records, to file false documents with the government or to make false statements on a sworn document.
But in every case, those laws require proof of intent: Prosecutors have to show that someone made the false statements knowingly, in an effort to deceive or to cover up a crime.
But if that proof does turn up in documents or in testimony from a cooperating witness, the Trump Organization could be in serious trouble, and possibly Trump, too, if it's shown he had any direct involvement in giving bad information to the lawyers who made the valuations.
We wouldn't hold our breath if we were you, but the propensity of Trump insiders to make mistakes or roll over for prosecutors is a value greater than zero. [WaPo]
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