Since Donald Trump’s fortunes came surging back with the success of “The Apprentice” 14 years ago, his deals have often been scrutinized for the large number of his partners who have ventured to the very edges of the law, and sometimes beyond. Those associates have included accused money launderers, alleged funders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and a felon who slashed someone in the face with a broken margarita glass.
Trump and his company have typically countered by saying they were merely licensing his name on these real estate projects in exchange for a fee. They weren’t the developers or in any way responsible.
But an eight-month investigation by ProPublica and WNYC reveals that the post-millennium Trump business model is different from what has been previously reported. The Trumps were typically way more than mere licensors or bystanders in their often-troubled deals. They were deeply involved in these projects. They helped mislead investors and buyers — and they profited handsomely from it.
Patterns of deceptive practices occurred in a dozen deals across the globe, as the business expanded into international projects, and the Trumps often participated. One common pattern, visible in more than half of those transactions, was a tendency to misstate key sales numbers.
In interviews and press conferences, Ivanka Trump gave false sales figures for projects in Mexico’s Baja California; Panama City, Panama; Toronto and New York’s SoHo neighborhood. These statements weren’t just the legendary Trump hype; they misled potential buyers about the viability of the developments.
Another pattern: Donald Trump repeatedly misled buyers about the amount (or existence) of his ownership in projects in Tampa, Florida; Panama; Baja and elsewhere. For a tower planned in Tampa, for example, Trump told a local paper in 2005 that his ownership would be less than 50 percent: “But it’s a substantial stake. I recently said I’d like to increase my stake but when they’re selling that well they don’t let you do that.” In reality, Trump had no ownership stake in the project.
The Trumps often made money even when projects failed. And when they tanked, the Trumps simply ignored their prior claims of close involvement, denied any responsibility and walked away.
The cycle is exemplified in Panama City, where the Trumps were involved in a project to build a massive tower and complex known as the Trump Ocean Club. The project’s unfortunate turns included bankruptcy, then, years later, the forcible ejection of the Trump Organization from managing the hotel.
There, as elsewhere, the Trump Organization disclaimed responsibility. It emphasized that it had merely licensed the Trump name to developers who handled everything from construction to marketing. “The Trump Organization was not the owner, developer or seller of the Trump Ocean Club Panama project,” it said in a statement last year. “Because of its limited role, the company was not responsible for the financing of the project and had no involvement in the sale of units.”
That was false. For starters, Trump arranged financing — his promised commission: $2.2 million or more — by bringing in investment bank Bear Stearns, which issued the bonds that paid for the Panama project’s construction.
Trump touted himself as a “partner” of the developer. His daughter Ivanka briefly boasted that she had personally sold 40 units. (A broker on the project said he couldn’t remember her selling even one.) Meanwhile, Ivanka told a journalist at the time that “over 90 percent” of the Panama units had sold — and at prices five times as high as comparable buildings. Both statements were untrue.
Not only were the Panama sales figures inflated, but many “purchases” turned out to be an illusion. That was no coincidence. The building’s financing depended on obtaining advance commitments from buyers, often before concrete had started pouring. But in between the sale of the bonds in 2007 and 2013, the year the building went bankrupt, buyers of 458 units in the 1,000-unit building abandoned their purchase contracts. Those buyers forfeited more than $50 million in deposits, and they never took possession of finished units. Given that the “buyers” were often shadowy shell companies or other paper entities, it was nearly impossible to discern who the actual purchasers were, let alone why they backed out.
Trump licensed his name for an initial fee of $1 million. But that was just the beginning of the revenue streams, a lengthy and varied assortment that granted him a piece of everything from sales of apartment units to a cut of minibar sales, and was notable for the myriad ways in which both success and failure triggered payments to him.
Consider the final accounting: In the wake of the project’s bankruptcy, a 50 percent default rate and his company’s expulsion from managing the hotel, Donald Trump walked away with between $30 million and $55 million.
The Trump Organization did not respond to a long list of questions about its transactions. The White House didn’t have a comment.
Trump’s licensing strategy originated with his early-2000s comeback, as “The Apprentice” propelled him to international TV stardom and restored luster to a reputation tarnished by multiple bankruptcies. As Trump put it in one promotional video during that period, “When the first season of ‘The Apprentice’ finally finished shooting, I was able to get back to my core business, real estate, and I’ve made some really incredible deals.” That strategy is still playing out today. The Trump Organization, which pledged not to launch new projects during the Trump presidency, is aggressively pursuing existing ones, including in the Dominican Republic, Indonesia and India.
Some long-assumed beliefs about Trump are being re-investigated, with surprising results. This month, The New York Times published a 13,000-word examination of how Donald’s father, the late Fred Trump, and his estate, funneled millions of dollars to his children, in possible violation of tax rules and criminal laws. With copious documentation showing that Fred directed $413 million in today’s dollars to Donald — not the single loan for $1 million, with interest, that Donald has always claimed — it exploded Trump’s long-propagated claim that he is a self-made man.
This article examines another Trump claim: that his post-millennium comeback and global expansion rested on the brilliant purity of a licensing strategy that paid him millions simply for the use of his name. That, it turns out, is no truer than the notion that Donald Trump is self-made.
“Development Wasn’t Our Big Forte”
A Lebanese importer-exporter with expertise in the apparel industry seemed an unlikely choice as a partner for one of Donald Trump’s first international forays. Yet that’s precisely who Trump would team with to embark on a wildly ambitious construction project in a distant Central American location.
Roger Khafif divided his time between Panama, where he had become a citizen, and South Florida. He was a slick dresser who made big promises and exuded an intensity that could be viewed either as determination or stubbornness, according to people who did business with him. He had worked in the Panama Canal free-trade zone as an importer-exporter of clothing and had recently begun dabbling in real estate, documents show, via ownership interests in two Panamanian beach resorts. “Development wasn’t our big forte,” Khafif acknowledged in an interview with ProPublica.
If Khafif seemed an implausible partner, Panama seemed an odd location for a project that would become a template of sorts for Trump’s international licensing deals. The country was better known as a cog in the Latin American drug trade than as a tourist destination. It was a place to turn illegal profits into useable cash. Money laundering helped fuel the proliferation of high-rises that gave Panama City its sleek, ultramodern skyline.
The deal came together fast, according to Khafif. To get to Trump, he said, an associate put him in touch with a business partner of Marvin Traub, the Trump friend and former Bloomingdale’s CEO who had also brokered Trump Vodka. Traub’s consultancy got Khafif on Trump’s schedule. (Traub’s firm later sought almost $1.3 million for matchmaking, court documents show.)
“We had a quick meeting,” Khafif recalled of his first encounter with Trump in New York in 2005. “Then I left. I went down to Miami, got a call the next day from Donald Trump saying they were interested in the project.” Khafif was so surprised he didn’t at first believe he was talking to Trump.
Trump signed on to Khafif’s plan and decided to bestow the leading role in the project, at least as far as the Trump Organization went, on his daughter Ivanka, Khafif told Reuters. Just entering her mid-20s, she was leading a major deal for the first time. Ivanka traveled to Panama shortly after, and the agreement coalesced quickly.
Khafif’s dream was audacious and grandiose. The planned complex, Ivanka claimed in a promotional video, would amass the largest square footage of any construction in all of the Americas. Fully Trumpian in its luxury and excess, the plan would call for a 69-story sail-shaped building with 1,000 condos and hotel-condo units, offices, a casino, spa, private beach, pool deck and yacht club. (When viewed from Panama Bay, the resulting edifice would look less like a sail and more like a giant lemon wedge perched on a square base.)
One Monday in April 2006 in the marble atrium at Trump Tower in Manhattan, Khafif stood in a well-cut dark suit and pale pink tie beside Trump, Ivanka and Donald Jr. to announce plans for the Trump Ocean Club’s birth. “I really think the time for Panama has come,” Trump proclaimed.
Trump left multiple observers with the impression that he had an equity stake in the deal. “He said the Trump organization does have a financial interest in the project but he would not disclose the amount,” reported a newsletter circulated to clients and associates, alerting them to news and investment opportunities, by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca, which would later become publicly known for sheltering wealth in offshore accounts.
Marketing materials for the Panama project also implied that Trump was functioning as a developer. “I am honored to develop this extraordinary high rise with my partner Roger Khafif of the K Group,” Trump was quoted as saying in one promotional statement. Buyers believed the Trumps and their company were functioning as the project’s developers, in partnership with Khafif, according to a lawsuit later filed by dozens of buyers.
But Trump did not have a penny of equity in the development, according to records of the bond sale and bankruptcy. Nor was he the actual developer, as the Trump Organization’s own statement confirmed.
In Panama and elsewhere, Trump’s projects depended on outsiders’ willingness to invest. Trump claimed at the time that banks were “fighting to put up money” for the building. But there’s no evidence that was the case. His five casino and hotel bankruptcies meant financial institutions tended to shy away, and Khafif’s lack of building experience made him a risky financing prospect. (Khafif ultimately brought on the principals of a Colombian construction and design firm to deliver the necessary know-how.)
Still, Trump had a card to play without which the tower would likely never have been built: his two-decade relationship with Bear Stearns. The investment bank agreed to underwrite a $220 million bond issue. Bear Stearns and Trump had worked together on a variety of endeavors. For example, two years earlier he and a Bear Stearns executive, Trump’s investment banking adviser, had launched Trump University, a non-accredited business education program that purported to teach his real estate strategies. (It later collapsed among accusations of fraud. Trump paid $25 million to settle a suit but denied wrongdoing.) And as far back as 1988, Trump paid a $750,000 civil judgment to the U.S. Department of Justice for having Bear Stearns make purchases of casino stocks in the bank’s name rather than in his. (Trump was looking to buy casinos at the time, and the Justice Department asserted that the concealed purchases violated antitrust laws.)
As the bond underwriter in the Panama project, Bear Stearns played a dual role: It raised money for construction and also vouched for the soundness of the bonds it would sell. The bank was supposed to be checking that information disclosed to investors was accurate and provided a complete picture of the investment’s strengths and weaknesses.
In reality, however, “the bank had significant lapses in exercising due diligence over their bond offerings” during that period, according to Gary Aguirre, an attorney and former SEC senior counsel who advocated for more accountability of Bear Stearns and other Wall Street banks involved in the financial crisis and said he researched Bear Stearns as part of that process. The bank, including a member of its Latin America group (which was involved in the Panama deal), faced multiple investigations by regulators into whether its employees in Miami and New York had improperly valued financial instruments, though they did not lead to charges, SEC records and media reports show.
The bond sale barely squeaked through in November 2007. Tremors of what would become a global financial earthquake were already destabilizing markets. At the last minute, Bear Stearns postponed the offering only to reverse course a few days later. “I remember walking up Fifth Avenue and I put my arm around Roger [Khafif],” said Jack Studnicky, a lead real estate agent for the project, “and I said, ‘You are the luckiest SOB I ever met.’” This project, branded with the name of a longtime Bear Stearns client, was the only bond issue among eight at Bear Stearns at that moment that moved forward.
Many investors turned up their noses at the bonds, even though Bear Stearns representatives had traveled to New York City, Miami and London to talk up the deal. Part of what drove some blue-chip corporate investors away was obvious: The bonds for the Panama project were rated “speculative” — “junk” in Wall Street parlance — reflecting what rating agencies viewed as an elevated chance of default. More risk-tolerant, and more anonymous, hedge funds and money managers proliferated among the bond buyers, making up 80 percent of initial investors.
Within months of the offering, it became clear that the Trump Ocean Club would outlive its financial backer. Bear Stearns crumpled suddenly in March 2008 as creditors pounced on the heavily indebted institution. Less than six months after it delivered the money to construct the tower, Bear Stearns disappeared into the belly of J.P. Morgan Chase.
“We Needed Those Extra Sales”
Trump’s connections landed financing for the Panama project, but they could take the deal only so far. The $220 million in bond proceeds wouldn’t have started flowing if Khafif’s team hadn’t satisfied a key prerequisite: Racking up “presales,” the term for purchase contracts signed while the building was under construction (and in many cases, before construction had even begun).
Buyers promised to make a down payment of 30 percent, spread over four installments, and to eventually pay in full. These binding pledges served as collateral for the bond, a crucial source of value that bondholders could seize if the developers failed to pay back what they owed.
Khafif and a cadre of brokers set out to move units, with what appeared to be dramatic success at first. The year Trump joined the project, 2006, the developers reported signing a whopping 585 presales contracts with prospective buyers (nearly 60 percent of the units in the building). The Moody’s credit-rating service cited the project’s rapid sales as a “positive credit characteristic.”
But the project scrambled to nail enough contracts to fulfill the bank’s requirements, according to Studnicky, who worked for the project’s master brokers, International Sales Group (ISG). Over a meal in a Spanish restaurant in New York City, Khafif told Studnicky he needed “another 100 sales to make it valid” — scribbling numbers on the paper tablecloth, according to Studnicky. “It wasn’t fully collateralized, and we needed those extra sales,” he said.
ISG leaned on its agents. “We knew there was a presale requirement in order to trigger the bond issue,” said Jeff Barton, another broker who worked at ISG at the time. “So there was definitely pressure.”
In dealing with potential buyers, the ISG brokers communicated urgency of a much different sort: They acted as if the building were running out of units. The prices were in constant flux, keeping potential buyers off-balance. “You could never really get a straight answer in terms of what was actually available, what had actually sold and what the real price was,” said Kent Davis, who began looking to sell Ocean Club inventory soon after opening his own real estate company in Panama City in 2007. (One buyer echoed Davis’ comments. “When I invested it was ‘Oh wow, it’s almost sold out!’” said Al Monstavicius, a retired doctor who bought into the Panama tower. “I was told the units were selling real well. Well, they weren’t selling real well.”) ISG did not return messages seeking comment.
Davis said he sold a few units, splitting the commission with ISG. “I think some of their projections were exaggerated. I think the way they described how the project would ultimately be built did not come to fruition,” he said. “I think they were overpromising and, to be honest, at times I was complacent.”
Just as Trump took millions upfront, financial incentives in the project were stacked to reward brokers for quick presales — rather than slow and steady contracts perhaps more likely to close once construction finished.
Commissions were front-loaded to an unusual degree, Davis said. Agents making the earliest sales would receive 90 percent of their expected commissions by the time construction started, according to Barton. Only the final 10 percent was held back until closing, when the buyer had paid in full and the unit was ready to be occupied. (Davis said that brokers typically get commissions in increments in line with the percentage their clients have put in.)
Even as brokers were taking cash out quickly, buyers were given time to put their money in. They anted up just 10 percent upon signing a purchase contract, according to the bond prospectus. They paid the remaining 20 percent in increments over the year after that.
Khafif complained of soaring construction costs and raised prices even as brokers hustled for contracts, Studnicky said. “I kept saying I understand the problem, but if you keep pushing the prices up, people are never going to be able to close on these things,” he said.
The higher prices climbed, the more the Trumps stood to pocket. Their licensing agreement gave them a base fee of 4 percent of gross sales when units closed. (This was on top of the $1 million Trump was given in advance for the use of his name.) They also received an “incentive fee”: the higher the price rose above benchmarks, the greater a proportion the Trumps earned, records show. A hotel-condominium unit that sold for $385,000, for example, would produce a payment of $20,650 — just over 5 percent — to Trump’s company.
That was just the beginning. Along with the cut of sales, Trump’s 2006 licensing agreement provided the family other cash streams from the Panama project. The Trumps could take a 20 percent commission on construction costs if money was saved through Trump dealmaking, for instance. Once the hotel opened, they would pocket 17.5 percent of what hotel guests paid for their rooms, including what they spent on minibar items, internet service and even bathrobes; 4 percent for parking unit sales; and 12 percent of commercial space rentals. The Trump Organization would also receive 4 percent of the hotel’s gross revenue for managing it, plus an incentive fee equal to a fifth of the hotel’s net operating income.
If everything went smoothly, according to the bond prospectus, Trump’s take would be $74 million by 2010. That sum was equivalent to about a third of the entire financing for the project.
Of course, things would go less than perfectly. But Trump was protected if that happened, too. His contract created a safety net for him if prices rose so high that buyers failed to close. One provision required that two years after the first closing, developers would pay the Trumps fees for unsold units — basing the amount on the average sales prices of the units that had closed. In theory, avoiding such payments provided an incentive to sell more units; in reality, it meant that Trump would get paid whether or not units actually sold.
The contract required that monthly sales and marketing reports be provided to the Trumps. It was a stipulation the Trump Organization appeared to value: In an email related to another project, Trump’s son Eric chastised business partners in the Dominican Republic for delays in making such reports. “I am getting weekly emails from my team who requests this info on all projects for basic monitoring purposes,” Eric wrote.
His sister, meanwhile, asserted her engagement with the company’s endeavors. “I’m involved in every aspect of our new construction projects,” Ivanka said in a 2008 interview. “[A] lot of what I do is get involved in the acquisition process, from sourcing the potential opportunities and then the initial due-diligence process, but then, of course, I follow the deals through to predevelopment planning, design, interior design, architectural design, sales and marketing, and, ultimately, through operations.”
“Our Biggest Problem Is Not Having Enough Inventory”
Construction on the Trump Ocean Club had begun in May 2007, with customer deposits, investor money and a bridge loan tiding the developers over until the sale of bonds in November 2007. To hear the Trumps tell it, the project was a raging and immediate success, even in the face of a historic global financial and real estate crisis that erupted in 2008 and continued into 2009 and beyond.
At times, the hyperbole crossed over into misrepresentation. In a November 2008 interview, Ivanka Trump bragged that she had “sold 40 units in Panama last month.” She added that “it’s a 1,000-unit building, we’ve sold over 90 percent of it.” The units, she said, had been going at a “500 percent premium to anything the luxury market has ever experienced prior to our entry.”
All of that was exaggerated or outright false. When pressed by her interviewer about what she meant by “I sold 40 units,” Ivanka backed off, saying, “We did, our project,” a transcript of the interview shows. Studnicky, who was deeply involved with Ocean Club sales at the time and generally praised the Trumps, said Ivanka didn’t sell any units that he knew of.
Three months after Ivanka’s comments were published, Moody’s reported that 79 percent of the building’s units were under purchase contracts. The Trump name did carry a premium, according to data filed with Panamanian securities officials. But even at its high point, it amounted to about 130 percent of what similar luxury properties fetched, not the 500 percent Ivanka claimed.
Meanwhile, the Trumps used some of their glamour to encourage sales. Donald Trump himself hosted a gala for the Panama project at Mar-a-Lago where celebrity Regis Philbin dropped in.
But difficulties were mounting and cash was tight. By 2009, some buyers were offered hefty discounts if they agreed to pay the full purchase price up front. (Monstavicius says he accepted such an offer, shaving $100,000 off his nearly half-million-dollar penthouse suite.)
Ratings for the Ocean Club’s bonds were lowered in February 2009, but you wouldn’t have known that by listening to the Trumps. A few weeks after the downgrade, Ivanka gushed about Panama in an interview with a publication called the Latin Business Chronicle. “Given the global downturn, the fact that sales remain so robust is a testament to the product, the brand and Panama,” she said. “Our biggest problem is not having enough inventory. We only have a small percent of the building left.”
The following year brought more trouble. There was another bond downgrade. One of the services that reduced its rating, Fitch, expressed concerns about the market and buyers’ “willingness and ability to close on units upon delivery.”
The developers faced a $27 million construction shortfall and delays by subcontractors performing services such as millwork. Khafif and his team trimmed back some of their plans, which only irked buyers who had already committed their money. For example, buyers said square footage for some units was reduced. The location for a planned beach club was moved to a more distant spot with less cachet. And plans to have Trump manage the casino were abandoned.
The issuing of the bonds hadn’t relieved pressure on the Ocean Club to move units. The developers needed to keep sales commitments and cash high or they risked defaulting on the bonds. By 2010, 25 contracts appeared in jeopardy as buyers missed payments toward their deposits.
Facing pressure from multiple sides, the developers sought bondholders’ permission to make key changes to their agreement. They proposed relaxing the requirements for collateral and reducing the amount of cash they had to keep in a deposit account. In a company statement quoted in the press at the time, Newland International Properties (the entity formed by Khafif and the outside developers he partnered with) was blunt about its need: “The company believes that the proposed amendments are necessary to allow the company to continue construction.”
“Nobody Ever Asked Where These Sales Were Coming From”
From the beginning, the plan at the Trump Ocean Club was to draw a luxury-seeking international clientele with disposable income. With some 1,000 units to sell, brokers tapped networks of upper-crust buyers across the globe. In doing so, they netted purchasers with problematic pasts, including some with ties to organized crime and money laundering operations.
ISG representatives and independent brokers fanned out to Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Dubai, China and South Africa, as well as other Latin American countries. As of mid-2007, roughly 60 percent of buyers came from outside the United States, bond documents show. (Much has been made of Trump’s buyers of Russian nationality or extraction, but the Panama sales were not tracked by nationality. Still, some were found in Moscow and, Khafif said, in developments in Sunny Isles Beach, Florida — an area known as “Little Moscow.”)
Several aspects of the Panama sales raised red flags, according to experts. For example, some buyers bought blocks of units. Purchases were typically made anonymously through shell corporations registered in Panama. That allowed some buyers to change the ownership of the unit in secret, simply by changing the ownership of the company. They often used so-called bearer shares, allowing a stake in a company to be transferred simply by passing a piece of paper.
“Nobody ever asked where these sales were coming from, where the money was coming from,” said Studnicky, adding that this wasn’t unusual for such a building at the time.
The purchase of multiple units and the use of bearer shares or shell companies are not illegal in themselves. But they can be hallmarks of money laundering, according to experts. “We have no idea of the people behind those companies,” said Eryn Schornick, a policy adviser for Global Witness, an international anti-corruption organization. The Panama deal, she said, bore signs of “classic money laundering.”
Meanwhile, multiple buyers claimed they were promised quick profits through flips arranged by the developers, promises they say were not fulfilled. Some of those allegations began emerging in litigation even before the Trump Ocean Club opened.
In late 2010, a group of buyers accused Trump, the Trump Organization, Khafif and Newland, Khafif’s development operation, of misleading them, according to a previously unreported lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Florida. There were 37 plaintiffs, led by an independent broker, Greg Landau. The group — including South Florida residents, a family in Brooklyn, a Massachusetts psychiatrist, a New York fashion mogul and several Russians — had bought 42 Ocean Club condominiums between 2006 and 2009.
The group alleged that Khafif had offered them a sweet enticement: If they put 30 percent down, either the developer or the Trump Organization would finance the rest. Khafif, plaintiffs claimed, said Newland or the Trump Organization would manage the investment — finding new buyers so they could flip it for a big profit before construction was finished and they had to close on the property.
The deal soured after some of the Ocean Club plans were trimmed (including, as noted, reducing the size of units). Buyers discovered there was no developer financing, and no buyers lined up to flip to. They went to court.
Trump had “stood by silently as Khafif made the misrepresentations” in a meeting at Mar-a-Lago in 2007 aimed at attracting investors and encouraging current investors to increase their deposits, the lawsuit claimed. It also cited the marketing materials in which Trump called Khafif his “partner.” “The Trump Organization knew these representations were being made by Khafif to Landau and of the fact that Landau was expected to repeat them to other potential investors,” it alleged. “Defendants Khafif, Donald Trump, and the Trump Organization were culpable participants in the fraudulent scheme.”
In an interview with ProPublica, one of those buyers described what he had expected to happen. “There was an agreement that when the hotel is built, when the building is ready, we’ll sell our apartments, our shares, and quit the project,” said Victor Masaltsev, an internet entrepreneur who lives in Moscow and invested in the Ocean Club through a Panamanian shell company that became a plaintiff in the Landau suit against Trump. Masaltsev said he was invited to visit Mar-a-Lago for an event with Trump celebrating the project, but he couldn’t make the trip.
“I’ve been doing business for a long time and, you know, there’s never a 100 percent guarantee,” he said through a translator. “But I was expecting to make no less than 50 percent profit on my money.” Instead, he said, he lost his deposit.
In their legal papers, the Trump Organization and Newland asserted that the complaint was “completely devoid of facts sufficient to show that Donald Trump and The Trump Organization were conducting the affairs of a ‘fraudulent scheme.’”
Khafif called the lawsuit a case of “buyers’ remorse, of course.” There were “a million” such lawsuits when the financial crisis came, he added. “They tried to invent anything in order to get their money back. It wasn’t our fault.”
A U.S. judge ordered the case be moved to Panamanian courts, but the parties reached a confidential settlement before that happened. Other plaintiffs, reached by ProPublica, have a surprising take on the dispute today. Three of them echoed Khafif and said the project was simply a bad investment. “It’s nothing to do with Trump,” said David Feldman, speaking outside his Brooklyn duplex. He said he did not receive any money in the settlement and added that he thought Trump was hurt by the deal, too, before declining to talk further. Landau did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Roderick Coleman, the attorney named on the lawsuit pleadings.
Landau’s group wasn’t the only one to claim it was sold on an unfulfilled promise of easy flipping. One buyer from Dubai made similar claims, according to emails in the Panama Papers, a collection of documents leaked from Mossack Fonseca and shared by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. “The concept was pay the deposit and they would get it resold before completion,” a representative for the buyer wrote to a lawyer in Panama. “[T]he apartment was going to be resold for them by the agents that came from Panama to Dubai for Marketing the project.” Khafif called it another case of buyer’s remorse.
“Our Project Was the Cleanest One of Them All”
Unfulfilled promises weren’t the only questionable behavior alleged at the Trump Ocean Club. For example, one high-selling broker, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, was linked to money laundering by Global Witness and a joint Reuters-NBC investigation. Nogueira confirmed in that article that some of his partners and investors on the Trump Panama project had connections to the Russian mafia. (He asserted that he had discovered those connections only after the fact.) Among the buyers Nogueira landed was a Colombian businessman who was subsequently convicted in the United States of conspiring to launder drug money.
Khafif told ProPublica that he hired Nogueira because he was one of the highest-profile brokers in Panama City at the time. “That guy was very famous,” Khafif said. “We ended up suing him because he swindled the clients.” Nogueira, who was also accused of selling the same units to more than one buyer at the same time, fled Panama and described himself in the Reuters article as a “fugitive.” (He denied in that story, but could not be reached for comment for this article.)
The Trump Organization denied the family knew Nogueira. But photos were published of Ivanka and her father smiling with an arm around Nogueira at events at Trump Tower and Mar-a-Lago.
Project developers also seem to have made dubious presales themselves — and profitable ones at that — according to emails between bondholders and Newland obtained by ProPublica.
Newland shareholders purchased some of the building’s units at below-market prices with down payments of just 5 percent. “I have never seen 8-10 percent of a 996 unit project reserved by the developers at prices as much as 70 percent less than list price (with just a 5% deposit),” asserted one email from Gary Lundgren, who now owns a sizable part of the building, to others in the project. The purchases were “not disclosed in the Bear Stearns’s bond offering circular, not disclosed in the quarterly financial disclosure, not disclosed in the annual audited financial statements,” he complained.
Newland acquired some of the units by taking over ones that were in danger of default, Lundgren stated in the email, with the developers kicking in the 5 percent needed for the units to continue being counted as collateral under the bond terms. The developers resold some of the properties at higher prices, Lundgren’s email asserted, and they pocketed the difference. These resales effectively cut out bondholders from their share of the proceeds. His emails to Newland did not mention the Trumps. (In 2016, Lundgren was barred by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority from acting as a broker after he failed to respond to an information request. His filings asserted that the complaint against him, filed by someone who was not his customer, was without merit, and that Panamanian law prevented him from disclosing the records.)
The insider purchases potentially violated the terms of the project’s financing. The bond prospectus required down payments of at least 30 percent, which would “protect the economics of our project.” Since sweetheart deals generated less cash — which meant less collateral for the bonds — a provision of the bond agreement restricted sales made to affiliates of the developers. And if buyers stopped making payments, they were supposed to go through a default process rather than have Newland take over their purchase.
“The developers made bad judgment calls, and they justified it by their support for the project,” said Alfredo “Dino” de Angelis, of Gapstone, which advised Newland in the bankruptcy. Ultimately, he said, the developers added money to stabilize the project, enough to equal or exceed what they appear to have made by re-selling units.
Khafif said that bondholders looked into the questions and “found everything was 100 percent by the book.” He said developers didn’t need to buy units and followed the rules in the bond indenture. Khafif insisted that he conducted business the right way. “Our project was the cleanest one of them all,” he said. “We had to watch out for Trump, we had to watch out for bondholders. We had to work within the indenture, or else we’d be screwed.”
“Replete With Misrepresentations”
Ivanka Trump’s exaggerations about the Ocean Club reflected a tactic she and her father employed repeatedly in other cases, ProPublica and WNYC found. Their statements, typically made in the midst of sales drives, tended to overstate the number of units under contract or the Trump Organization’s equity stake in projects scattered around the globe.
The Trumps’ propensity to overstate sales led them, as ProPublica, WNYC and the New Yorker reported last year, to be investigated on potential felony fraud charges in one case. Ivanka had announced in June 2008 that 60 percent of the units at the SoHo tower had been bought when in fact 15 percent had, according to an affidavit filed by a Trump partner. The Manhattan district attorney’s office considered charging the Trumps but backed off after a visit from a donor — Trump’s attorney Marc Kasowitz. (The DA, Cyrus Vance, denied he was influenced by the donation but later changed his policy and now refuses donations from lawyers with cases before him.)
Similar deceptions occurred elsewhere. In a marketing video for a project in Baja, Mexico, Ivanka referred to Trump International Hotel in Toronto as one of several “sold out” properties. The Toronto tower never did sell out. It was still three-quarters empty late last year, a few months after Trump’s name was removed from the building.
Trump himself also made misrepresentations. In 2006, he said the Trump Organization would be a significant equity investor in the $200 million Baja project and repeatedly portrayed himself as the project’s developer. Yet in 2008, the company admitted it was neither a developer nor an investor.
In Tampa, as noted, Trump told the press he had a significant ownership stake when he had none. Moreover, his licensing agreement contained a confidentiality provision barring “under any circumstances” that anyone reveal the agreement existed, and hence that Trump was only licensing his name. The deal never got financing and ultimately fell apart.
Panama also wasn’t the only project where questions emerged about insider deals. In Tampa, Donald Trump Jr. and three executives associated with the Trump Organization arranged to buy a unit under unusually attractive terms, according to emails between the executives and the developer. As early sales on the project surged, the Trump group — which formed a company called Busy Boys Investments to handle the purchase — bargained both for a discount price and a smaller deposit than other buyers paid.
“Can you confirm the deal?” asked Russell Flicker, a former Trump Organization executive vice president, in a late-2004 email to one of the Tampa developers. “(We had discussed 5% down payment, discounted price and flip rights prior to closing — are all of these on the table?) You’re the man.” The developer replied, “The deal is as you state!”
The Trump group also discussed backdating documents to reduce their tax liability, according to the emails. They excitedly anticipated a quick flip that would yield a $200,000 profit — $50,000 apiece, a handsome return on the $8,604 deposit each paid. (The emails were revealed in a court case filed by unhappy buyers; their suit ultimately settled, with the buyers receiving limited refunds of their deposits.) In January 2005, Flicker forwarded an email conveying the prospect of such a windfall to his partners in the side deal: Donald Jr. and Trump Organization executive vice presidents Bernie Diamond and Jason Greenblatt, with the message: “!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
In a July 2005 email, Diamond, an attorney, explained to the others that the developer told him he would prepare a unit purchase contract “for Busy Boys to sign dated in 2004,” as well as an assignment of their contract to the proposed buyer, also “dated one year earlier.” Diamond noted,
“This is good, as it will give us the best shot at capital gains treatment.” (The Tampa tower was never constructed, so the Busy Boys entity did not ultimately cash in. On behalf of Greenblatt, who is now a special representative for international negotiations in the Trump administration, a White House official said “Mr. Greenblatt complied with all applicable laws in connection with condominium purchase agreements.”)
In Baja, Ivanka tried to leverage her own unit purchase to pull in other buyers. “I personally am very excited about it, I actually chose to purchase a unit in the first tower,” she said in a promotional video as she flashed a smile. She did not mention that the deposit she paid was less than half of the 30 percent other investors put in for their units, according to Univision. Univision also reported that the developers overstated the percentage of units sold and had assigned 34 units to their own executives and other related parties.
Written materials became a matter of contention, as well; multiple buyers contended they were misleading. Trump had some say over such materials: Projects including Baja, Tampa, the Dominican Republic, Israel and Panama all required developers and other partners to obtain prior approval from Trump’s company before posting press releases. In some cases, the company had veto power over promotional materials in general, as well.
There were other deceptions. In marketing materials featuring a grinning image of the New York developer, potential buyers in a Trump-branded project in Toronto were shown investment projections that proved wildly optimistic, according to interviews and records from the extensive litigation that ensued. A Canadian appeals court, ruling after the Toronto deal went sour, unanimously found that estimates of profitability provided to purchasers “bore no relation to financial reality.” The panel quoted a trial judge’s findings that the projections were “deceptive” and “replete with misrepresentations of commission, of omission, and of half-truth.” (The case is still pending.)
In Chicago, Trump promised discounts — some with down payments of as little as 5 percent — to friends and colleagues, only to rescind those arrangements when sales in the building picked up. Trump justified the broken promises, saying “we’re entitled” to the higher prices.
Buyers who sued Trump have had mixed success. Most suits settled before trial, but Trump prevailed in cases in Las Vegas and Florida in which buyers accused his company of deception.
The “Stormy Jack Daniels”
The Trump Ocean Club in Panama was officially inaugurated on July 6, 2011. It was nearly a year behind schedule after cost overruns and construction delays. The Trumps had been more visible again during the final stages. Ivanka picked out design finishes, including helping deck out the “sky lobby” on the 15th floor with wood paneling, pillars and marble that echoed the ground floor entrance hall. The lobby’s “tropical color palette” was “reminiscent of indigenous flowers,” Ivanka said in one promotional video.
July falls during Panama’s rainy season and a downpour swamped the city’s already-overwhelmed infrastructure on the day of the opening, turning the cramped roads near the tower into waterways. Trump had angered many Panamanians by declaring that the U.S. had “stupidly” turned over the Panama Canal “in exchange for nothing.” But the country’s then-president, Ricardo Martinelli, turned up for the ceremony nonetheless. He joined Trump, his two adult sons, Khafif, and other dignitaries to cut a ribbon to mark the opening. Ivanka, days away from giving birth to her first child, did not attend. (In June 2018, Martinelli was extradited on corruption charges, unrelated to the Trump project, from the U.S., where he had fled in search of sanctuary. He has denied wrongdoing.)
Trump was upbeat. “I think this hotel is truly magnificent,” he said, according to press reports. “You look at Panama’s skyline and you see how this one truly stands out.”
The time had come for the hundreds of sales contracts that brokers had amassed over the previous five years — eventually covering about 85 percent of the building — to convert to actual sales. In the months that followed, however, it became increasingly clear that buyers were walking away in droves.
Ultimately, only about half the sales contracts closed, leaving the building largely empty and developers struggling to make bond-related payments. One-bedroom units that once sold for $350,000 could be scooped up for $180,000. In November 2011, developers defaulted on a critical bond payment.
The volume of people who abandoned their deposits far exceeded the ratings agencies’ worst-case predictions. Those predictions rested on the forbidding combination of tight post-crisis financing standards and the high prices that many buyers had agreed to pay. That strongly suggests that many of the remaining people who paid deposits and then vanished may not have intended to do anything more than put down enough cash to trigger the $220 million bond issuance.
Newland declared bankruptcy in April 2013 in federal court in New York City, where it kept much of its cash. The Trumps agreed to reduce their fees, making concessions that bankruptcy records said would amount to $20 million over a period of years.
Even after those concessions, Khafif’s company continued to run in the red in 2014 and 2015, with net losses nearing $28 million in 2014 alone, financial reports show. It missed another payment in 2015.
So Trump didn’t make the $74 million he had hoped for. He appears to have walked away with between $30 million and $55 million, based on fragmentary information in his government disclosure forms, financial statements filed in Panama and estimates by observers.
Khafif seems philosophical about it. At 63, he’s semiretired and travels to the U.S. and Europe often. These days, he said, his main business is laundering linens. The company, Perfect Cleaners, which Khafif called the largest industrial laundry plant in Central America, has served the Trump Ocean Club. (He did not respond to a question about his own financial outcome on the Trump project.)
Khafif said his relationship with the family remains good. “I was in New York a couple months ago. I went to visit Eric Trump,” he said. “We’re fine.” The Ocean Club proved a disappointment in many respects, he said, “but life goes on. … It’s the best building in town.”
As much as $120 million of the original bond was never paid back, according to one investor. Asked about that, Khafif pointed out that many investors sold their bonds — albeit at a discount — after receiving interest payments for years, allowing some to recoup much of their investment at a time when lots of people were hemorrhaging money. “It depends on how you look at it,” Khafif said. “You’re grateful at getting your money back, or you’re greedy and you want to make money when everybody lost their shirt.”
Ocean Club buyers filed a host of lawsuits in Panama, complaining of the delays and changes in the building plans. The beach club was never built. A non-Trump company took over the casino. Some rooms were smaller than planned.
By 2015, a new revolt was brewing, this time by Ocean Club unit owners fed up with the way the Trumps were managing the property — or more particularly, with how they were spending the building association’s money. Led by Lundgren, the owners alleged that Trump employees overspent budgets, taking excessive bonuses for themselves, and mishandled building finances, leading them to propose a steep increase in fees to owners. Trump responded by suing the condo owners, demanding up to $75 million for wrongful termination. (The litigation was settled confidentially in 2016.)
In 2017, Ithaca Capital Partners, led by Orestes Fintiklis, bought 202 of the hotel’s 369 hotel-condo units. In October of last year, his group sought to remove the Trump Organization as hotel managers — alleging in a legal action that it had mismanaged the hotel, leading to drastic drop-offs in occupancy and profits. The Trump Organization countersued, accusing Fintiklis of a “fraudulent scheme” that breached its 20-year management contract.
The dispute reached a head early this year, when Fintiklis’ representatives, with a court order behind them, sought to take physical control of the building. Trump Organization employees and a group of security personnel tried to block the effort, leading to confrontations and shoving matches.
Fintiklis’ group ultimately gained entry but discovered walls had been hastily erected in inconvenient places — in the middle of a hallway, in front of an elevator bank — to impede access to the building’s inner offices. Reports circulated of Trump employees shredding documents.
In March of this year, the Trumps suffered the ignominy of seeing their name crowbarred off the stone wall in front of the tower. It was rebranded the Bahia Grand Panama. In late spring, the hotel, once touted as boasting stratospheric levels of luxury, was quiet, with rooms renting for the decidedly terrestrial rate of $169 a night. At the hotel bar, you could order drinks with a sardonic twist that reflected Fintiklis’ sense of humor, including the “Fire and Fury” and the “Stormy Jack Daniels.”
In June, Fintiklis announced the hotel would have a new manager. “We are thrilled that our hotel will operate as a JW Marriott,” he said in a statement, “and we believe this partnership, together with a talented team and spectacular hotel amenities, will be a success.”