Trump’s se­cre­tive land deals reach $35 mil­lion

The Arizona Republic - - Front Page - Nick Pen­zen­stadler

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s com­pa­nies sold more than $35 mil­lion in real es­tate in 2017, mostly to se­cre­tive shell com­pa­nies that ob­scure buy­ers’ iden­ti­ties, a USA TO­DAY in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­cov­ers.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s com­pa­nies sold more than $35 mil­lion in real es­tate in 2017, mostly to se­cre­tive shell com­pa­nies that ob­scure buy­ers’ iden­ti­ties, con­tin­u­ing a dra­matic shift in his cus­tomers’ be­hav­ior that be­gan dur­ing the elec­tion, a USA TO­DAY re­view found.

In Las Ve­gas, Trump sold 41 lux­ury condo units in 2017, a ma­jor­ity of which used lim­ited li­a­bil­ity com­pa­nies — cor­po­rate en­ti­ties that al­low peo­ple to pur­chase prop­erty with­out re­veal­ing all of the own­ers’ names.

The trend to­ward Trump’s real es­tate buy­ers ob­scur­ing their iden­ti­ties be­gan around the time he won the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion, mid­way through 2016, ac­cord­ing to USA TO­DAY’s anal­y­sis of every do­mes­tic real es­tate sale by one of his com­pa­nies.

In the two years be­fore the nom­i­na­tion, 4% of Trump buy­ers uti­lized used the tac­tic. In the year af­ter, the rate sky-

“From what we know of the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s past real es­tate deals is they never see deals they don’t like.” At­tor­ney Ross Del­ston

rock­eted to about 70%. USA TO­DAY’s track­ing of sales shows the trend held firm through Trump’s first year in of­fice.

Prof­its from sales of those prop­er­ties flow through a trust run by Trump’s sons. The pres­i­dent is the sole ben­e­fi­ciary of the trust, and he can with­draw cash at any time.

The opaque sales come as Congress and ethics watch­dogs have called on Trump to be more trans­par­ent about his do­mes­tic and for­eign cus­tomers and part­ners, in­clud­ing the buy­ers of his com­pa­nies’ real es­tate.

At least one of the sales in 2017 was to a Ger­man cou­ple. His com­pany de­ter­mined that trans­ac­tion does not qual­ify as a “for­eign deal,” which the pres­i­dent and his lawyers vowed to avoid while he is in of­fice.

Trump ap­pointed an in­de­pen­dent ethics ad­viser, at­tor­ney Bobby Burch­field, to re­view new deals.

Last year, when USA TO­DAY first re­ported the rapid rise in the share of ob­scured buy­ers among Trump’s real es­tate trans­ac­tions, Burch­field would not re­veal the de­tails of his re­views. Now, he says a four-part test is used when eval­u­at­ing a deal: Is it at fair mar­ket value or in the or­di­nary course of busi­ness? Is it an ap­pro­pri­ate coun­ter­party? Is there any in­di­ca­tion the deal is in­tended to curry fa­vor with the pres­i­dent? And is there any like­li­hood the deal could com­pro­mise or di­min­ish the of­fice of the pres­i­dent?

“If some­one wants to do busi­ness with the Trump en­ti­ties in the form of an LLC, we look be­hind the LLC to see who the owner of it is and where the fund­ing is com­ing from,” Burch­field told USA TO­DAY. “If we can’t de­ter­mine that, we won’t sign off on it.”

Those deep-dive iden­ti­fi­ca­tions and fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sures are dif­fi­cult and eas­ily spoofed, said Ross Del­ston, a Washington at­tor­ney spe­cial­iz­ing in anti-money-laun­der­ing com­pli­ance.

He said Burch­field’s test is largely sub­jec­tive. “From what we know of the Trump Or­ga­ni­za­tion’s past real es­tate deals is they never see deals they don’t like,” Del­ston said. “Hav­ing an ethics ad­viser shut down a deal based on a test not man­dated by law strikes me as some­where be­tween un­likely to un­think­able.”

The com­pany’s in­ter­nal ethics re­views are not sub­ject to pub­lic scru­tiny.

Burch­field wouldn’t say whether he de­clined to sign off on any Trump real es­tate deals in 2017.

New buy­ers last year ranged from real es­tate in­vest­ment funds, wealthy in­di­vid­u­als seek­ing an in­vest­ment and va­ca­tion prop­erty to some that were un­reach­able by re­porters — largely be­cause of the se­crecy as­so­ci­ated with their shell com­pa­nies.

Ram­sis Ghaly, a neu­ro­sur­geon near Chicago pur­chased a condo in Trump’s Ve­gas prop­erty in late De­cem­ber, us­ing an LLC. He said he used the LLC to pro­tect his iden­tity and on the ad­vice of a fi­nan­cial con­sul­tant. “Was I ner­vous my name could be as­so­ci­ated with him? Sure, you’re al­ways con­cerned with the politics and me­dia, but for me, the pos­i­tives of the prop­erty out­weighed the neg­a­tives,” Ghaly said. “A lot of my doc­tor friends buy in Trump Chicago — I was a lit­tle hes­i­tant, but I be­lieve in the guy, and it wasn’t about politics.”

A sin­gle condo in Trump’s Ve­gas de­vel­op­ment sold in Oc­to­ber for $1.6 mil­lion. That stretched the price per square foot to about $1,000, push­ing the lim­its of the mar­ket, said Ni­cole Tom­lin­son, a high-rise sales spe­cial­ist at Shapiro & Sher Group in Las Ve­gas. “You pay a pre­mium for a high floor, view and pent­house, but that’s high for con­dos and Las Ve­gas over­all,” Tom­lin­son said.

Ef­forts to reach Lorraine Tan, the name listed on the deed for the 63rd floor pent­house were un­suc­cess­ful.

Ja­son Feld­man, a real es­tate in­vestor in Florida, pur­chased a Trump condo in Las Ve­gas in De­cem­ber, us­ing an LLC.

Feld­man said he is a mem­ber at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla. He said politics didn’t fac­tor in his de­ci­sion to buy the Ve­gas condo.

“The Trump fam­ily in­volve­ment in the Ve­gas project played zero role in the pur­chase de­ci­sion at all,” Feld­man wrote in an email. “The deal was purely an eco­nomic de­ci­sion. In my opin­ion I think th­ese are un­der­priced given the growth of the Las Ve­gas mar­ket and likely will buy more units.”

4114 TIH LLC pur­chased a condo in Las Ve­gas in Novem­ber. The com­pany was formed days be­fore the pur­chase in Ne­vada by Ge­or­gia at­tor­ney Robert Gold­berg and his son Hay­den of Las Ve­gas. Robert Gold­berg said he plans to live in the unit part-time and use it for rental in­come. “I’ll let the pub­lic record speak for it­self on the sale, I’m not any­body. Us­ing an LLC is stan­dard pro­ce­dure,” he said.

It wasn’t stan­dard pro­ce­dure for Trump buy­ers be­fore his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, when fewer than one in 20 of Trump com­pa­nies’ real es­tate buy­ers were LLCs.

Trump and bil­lion­aire part­ner Phil Ruf­fin own about 350 units in the tower. Ruf­fin’s staff in­di­cated that the pair wouldn’t own fewer than 300. Main­tain­ing that many units pro­tects their op­tions for a casino li­cense some­day un­der Ne­vada law.

Trump sits on dozens of other real es­tate prop­er­ties for sale. Those in­clude his 11-bed­room, 12-bath­room man­sion on the Caribbean is­land of St. Martin.

Trump re­duced his ask­ing price from $28 mil­lion to $16.9 mil­lion in Au­gust, the list price to­day. Any­one can rent the prop­erty that sleeps 20 for roughly $10,000 a night from a third-party ven­dor.


Con­dos in Pres­i­dent Trump’s Las Ve­gas de­vel­op­ment were sold to se­cre­tive shell com­pa­nies.

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