April 21, 2017

FOLLOWING THE MONEY:

Trump condos worth $250 million pose potential conflict (Nick Penzenstadler , Steve Reilly and John Kelly , 4/20/17, USA TODAY)

President Trump's companies own more than 400 condo units and home lots whose sale could steer millions of dollars to Trump, a USA TODAY investigation has found.

USA TODAY spent four months cataloging every property Trump's companies own across the country. Reporters found that Trump's companies are sitting on at least $250 million of individual properties in the USA alone. Property records show Trump's trust and his companies own at least 422 luxury condos and penthouses from New York City to Las Vegas, 12 mansion lots on bluffs overlooking his golf course on the Pacific Ocean and dozens more smaller pieces of real estate. The properties range in value from about $200,000 to $35 million each.

Unlike developments where Trump licenses his name to a separate developer for a flat fee, profits from selling individual properties directly owned by his companies ultimately enrich him personally.

Trump has never disclosed a complete, unit-by-unit inventory of his companies' real estate holdings or sales, nor is he required to do so by federal law. Trump says he's separated himself from his businesses, but the trust set up in January is run by his sons. Trump is the only beneficiary and can withdraw funds at any time.

The volume of real estate creates an extraordinary and unprecedented potential for people, corporations or foreign interests to try to influence a president. Anyone who wanted to court favor with the president could snap up multiple properties or purposefully overpay. They could buy in the name of a shell company, making it impossible for the public to know who was behind the sales.

The potential for conflicts is exacerbated by Trump's refusal to release his tax returns or fully separate himself from his businesses, breaking with precedent set by presidents going back four decades. Since Congress passed the Ethics in Government Act in 1978, all six presidents from Carter to Obama established blind trusts or limited investments to assets like mutual funds. Trump has not.

The president is exempt from most conflict-of-interest laws that apply to others working in the federal government. He is not required to disclose when units sell or who bought them.

He is barred by the Constitution from receiving gifts from foreign governments or officials. Trump's assessment that the ban doesn't apply to market-rate transactions is debated in lawsuits and among ethics experts.

Regardless, it may be impossible for the public to even know who is behind purchase because the rules governing real estate transactions allow for shell companies to make purchases without disclosing who actually paid the money.

"Anyone seeking to influence the president could set up an anonymous company and purchase his property," said Heather Lowe, director of government affairs at Global Financial Integrity, a D.C.-based group aimed at curbing illicit financial transactions. "It's a big black box, and the system is failing as a check for conflicts of interest."

Since Election Day, records show Trump companies have sold at least 14 luxury condos and home-building lots for about $23 million. Half were sold to limited liability companies. No names were listed in deeds, obscuring buyers' identities.

Since launching his White House bid, Trump's companies have sold at least 58 units nationwide for about $90 million. Almost half of those sold to LLCs. [...]

A couple of weeks before the Republican National Convention, a Las Vegas financial firm filed paperwork to found Milan Investment Limited in Nevada.

Days later, the newly minted company went on a buying spree. Milan spent $3.1 million over four months to buy 11 luxury condos in a shimmering golden tower near the Strip that Trump owns with friend and casino mogul Phil Ruffin. Trump Ruffin LLC collected the last of the money weeks before Trump was elected.

Milan Investment tracks back to what appears to be an incorrect address, the strip mall office of a financial services firm.

The owner, Thomas Sullivan, said he never heard of Milan Investment but said a federal "regulatory" agency visited his office in person asking similar questions. He declined to identify the agency.

Posted by at April 21, 2017 1:04 PM

  

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