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New legal filing reveals startling details of possible fraud by Trump Organization

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

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A new legal filing by New York’s attorney general this week accused former President Donald Trump’s company of misleading lenders about the financial health of its landmark downtown Manhattan skyscraper, 40 Wall Street, while seeking to renew the building’s mortgage.

Though the Trump Organization called 40 Wall Street “one of the great success stories post 2008,” lender Capital One found the company’s estimates of the building’s worth so unbelievable that the bank declined to refinance the tower’s loan in 2015, the filing alleges.

“Capital One harbored great skepticism regarding the Trump Organization’s valuations,” says the filing, which was submitted by Attorney General Letitia James in response to Trump’s efforts to block her from questioning him and his children as part of an ongoing investigation by her office.

The new accusations offer startling details about possible financial fraud involving 40 Wall Street — one of the subjects of a 2019 ProPublica story that highlighted conflicting financial documents the Trump Organization had filed for the building.

ProPublica’s story documented how income, expense and occupancy numbers cited in the eventual refinance for 40 Wall Street and another Manhattan building sometimes didn’t match those the company had filed with city tax authorities. A lower valuation for the city would produce a lower tax bill, while a higher valuation for lenders would make it easier to get a new mortgage.

One expert said it appeared like the Trump Organization was keeping “two sets of books.”

“It feels like a set of books for the tax guy and a set for the lender,” said Kevin Riordan, a financing expert and real estate professor at Montclair State University, at the time.

In her filing, James asserts that Trump Organization employees, including Trump’s children, took part in a pattern of deception in which they misled lenders, insurers and the Internal Revenue Service by vastly overstating values for 40 Wall Street and a host of other Trump properties, including golf courses in Scotland, Los Angeles and Westchester and his buildings on Fifth and Park avenues.

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The Trump Organization on Thursday lashed out at James, a Democrat, via a statement emailed by a spokesperson, saying, “The only one misleading the public is Letitia James.

“She defrauded New Yorkers by basing her entire candidacy on a promise to get Trump at all costs without having seen a shred of evidence and in violation of every conceivable ethical rule,” the organization’s statement said. It asserted that James “has no case” and that the “allegations are baseless and will be vigorously defended.”

Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for Trump’s children Donald Jr. and Ivanka Trump, also criticized James, accusing her of making “repeated threats to target the Trump family” and ignoring legal protections for “the very people she is investigating.”

James is seeking to compel testimony and obtain documents from Trump, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, who she said have not cooperated with her investigation.

The filing says that property valuations formed the heart of statements of financial condition that the Trump Organization used to demonstrate its net worth. The statements, which James said contained inaccuracies, were compiled by an outside accounting agency from a data spreadsheet and backup material provided by the Trump Organization.

Trump’s personal guarantees to some banks and insurers required him to certify that his financial statements were correct, according to James’ filing. The documents say her office has evidence Trump was “personally involved in reviewing and approving” the statements.

If the company or its employees are found to have deliberately provided misleading valuations, they could face civil or criminal penalties. The company is under investigation by both James and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg.

With its classic Gothic Revival style and signature green spire, 40 Wall Street gave Trump a presence in the most famous financial district in the world. His company doesn’t own it, but rather purchased in 1995 the right to act as the landlord for its office and retail space. Finding tenants for that space, however, particularly in the building’s narrow tower, proved a challenge, especially after 9/11, when occupancy sagged and the entire financial district struggled, the ProPublica investigation found.

James’ filing says that as early as 2009, Capital One, which held the mortgage on the property, “raised substantial concerns about cash flow” at 40 Wall Street, prompting in-person meetings with Trump, longtime Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg and others. Donald Trump Jr. was also involved in the discussions, the filing says.

The conversations led to a loan modification in 2010, with bank personnel harboring doubts about the Trump Organization’s representations of the building’s financial standing. During those discussions, the Trump Organization provided the bank with profit numbers for 2010 of $12.3 million, which bank personnel described as “very optimistic.”

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More startling were the differences between valuations that appeared on Trump’s statements of financial condition and those prepared by appraisers for Capital One. The Trump Organization set the value of the building at $601.8 million in 2010, while the appraisals for Capital One done by Cushman & Wakefield set it at just less than one-third of that, $200 million.

Weisselberg shared one of the company’s higher valuations for the building with the bank in early 2015, boasting of “considerable capital investment” and “a much improved cash flow.” He wanted Capital One to restructure its loan and waive a principal payment of $5 million due in November.

But Capital One declined to refinance the mortgage, referencing its own internal estimate that the building was only worth $257 million in the fall of 2014.

That year, 40 Wall Street’s $160 million mortgage was a thorn in Trump’s side, representing his then-largest single debt as he launched his campaign for the presidency.

After Capital One’s rejection, the Trump Organization turned to Ladder Capital Finance, where Weisselberg’s son Jack was a director. Ladder commissioned its own appraisal. Though Ladder used the same Cushman & Wakefield team that had estimated the building was worth $220 million in 2012, the team this time more than doubled the value to $540 million, legal filings said. Ladder approved the refinance.

James’ filing said that evidence her office obtained suggests the 2015 Cushman valuation “appears to have used demonstrably incorrect facts and aggressive assumptions” to arrive at the higher estimate, which the document said “did not reflect a good faith assessment of value.”

On Thursday, Cushman & Wakefield defended its practices, saying it took “great issue with mischaracterizations concerning the work performed and believe they are not supported by the evidence.

“The referenced Cushman & Wakefield appraisals were undertaken and completed in good faith based upon the material information made available,” the company said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. “We stand behind the appraisers and the referenced appraisals which reflect fair valuations based upon the underlying facts and market dynamics.”

In 2015, the Trump Organization’s statement of financial condition listed the value of the building as $735.4 million.

Ladder Capital and Capital One did not immediately respond to requests for comment Thursday. Allen Weisselberg and Jack Weisselberg could not immediately be reached.

ProPublica’s 2019 story found several instances of the Trump Organization reporting much lower expenses to its lender, Ladder Capital, than to city tax authorities — including 40 Wall Street’s insurance costs and ground lease. Jack Weisselberg declined to comment at the time on Ladder’s loans or his relationship with the Trump Organization. Executives with Ladder also declined to be quoted for the story then.

In 2019, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen testified before Congress that the Trump Organization inflated valuations at times to appear more profitable and deflated them to achieve a lower real estate tax bill.

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The filing asserts that Trump Organization employees took part in a pattern of deception in which they misled lenders, insurers and the Internal Revenue Service by vastly overstating values for a host of other Trump properties.