'Fantasy world': Donald Trump faces New York trial Monday for damages after judge finds fraud in real estate empire

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Like a game of Monopoly, Donald Trump may be forced to sell off his iconic properties under a New York judge's ruling that he committed fraud for years while building his real estate empire.

In a civil trial starting Monday, Trump's lawyers will return to court to begin a trial to determine how much he and his companies will be penalized for the fraud. New York Attorney General Letitia James is seeking $250 million in damages. Potential witnesses include Trump, his children and former business associates.

At stake? Whether the former president will have to shutter or break up his namesake Trump Organization and sell off those famous properties − and whether he will have to pay millions.

Trump's lawyers vowed to appeal the ruling. Trump called the decision "ridiculous and untrue."

New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron on Tuesday canceled Trump's business certificates by ruling he committed fraud for years through "pure sophistry," a "fantasy world" of real-estate valuations that "can only be considered fraud."

In fact, Engoron quoted a Marx Brothers movie to ridicule Trump's explanations for altering objective data such as the size of an apartment − an unusual approach for a judge to take.

“Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?” Engoron quoted Chico Marx from the movie "Duck Soup."

Engoron ruled that Trump valued his Mar-a-Lago resort at 20 times the tax assessment, that apartments at Trump Park Avenue gained millions of dollars on his corporate balance sheet beyond their appraised values, and that Trump falsely nearly tripled the square-footage of his own Trump Tower penthouse apartment to increase its value by calling the measurement "a subjective process."

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Dubuque, Iowa.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during a rally, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023, in Dubuque, Iowa.

Uncertainty about what the New York ruling means

But even Engoron acknowledged uncertainties about what his ruling means. On the eve of trial, Engoron told Trump's lawyers he would take it up "in various contexts."

Government and defense lawyers have 30 days to submit proposals for who should manage what happens under the judge's ruling.

Here is what we know about the case and where it stands:

What did the judge decide in Trump's real estate fraud case?

Trump companies often valued properties far higher than appraisers or tax assessors, Engoron found. Trump testified that a disclaimer on property values given to lenders meant they knew the estimates were “worthless," according to the decision.

“This is a fantasy world, not the real world,” Engoron wrote.

Language accompanying Trump's estimated values acknowledged they “are not necessarily indicative of the amount that could be realized.” In a sworn deposition, Trump called it the “worthless clause” for stating property values are uncertain.

“I think it had very little impact if any impact on the banks,” Trump said. “I felt it was a meaningless document.”

But Engoron ruled even though banks gave Trump loans and he paid them back, the fraud could disrupt the market and future lenders could “unfairly be left holding the bag.”

“The defenses Donald Trump attempts to articulate in his sworn deposition are wholly without basis in fact or law,” Engoron wrote.

Protesters gather outside Trump Tower on Friday, March 31, 2023, in New York. Former President Donald Trump was indicted by a Manhattan grand jury, Thursday, a historic reckoning after years of investigations into his personal, political and business dealings and an abrupt jolt to his bid to retake the White House.(AP Photo/Bryan Woolston) ORG XMIT: NYBW107

Differences in Trump property values 'can only be considered fraud': judge

The judge outlined several glaring disputes over Trump property values:

  • A 200-acre Westchester County property called Seven Springs LLC was appraised by Royal Bank of Pennsylvania in 2006 at $30 million if converted to residential homes. A Cushman & Wakefield appraiser estimated the value in 2014 at $30 million. Trump reported the value at $261 million to $291 million during that period.

  • Trump Park Avenue, a residential building, had a dozen rent-controlled apartments unsold in 2011, when Oxford Group appraised the units at $62,500 each. Newmark Knight Frank appraised six remaining units in 2020 at $3.8 million each. Trump’s lawyers argued the units could eventually become market-rent units, but Engoron ruled the numbers are supposed to represent “current" values, not “someday, maybe” values.

  • A lease at 40 Wall St. in New York was appraised in 2010 by Cushman & Wakefield as worth $200 million. But the Trump Organization valued the property at $525 million in 2011 and at $735 million in 2015. Trump argued the differences were irrelevant because Ladder Capitol received $40 million in interest on a loan for the property and the company never defaulted.

  • Mar-A-Lago, Trump’s Florida resort, had a market value ranging from $18 million to $27.6 million during the decade ending 2021, according to the Palm Beach County assessor. Trump valued the property at up to $612 million during that period.

  • Trump’s own apartment in Trump Tower is 10,996 square feet, but he submitted claims it was 30,000 square feet, according to Engoron. The difference resulting in an overvaluation of $114 million to $207 million, Engoron wrote.

“A discrepancy of this order of magnitude by a real estate developer sizing up his own living space of decades, can only be considered fraud,” Engoron wrote of the Trump Tower apartment.

President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, on Aug. 26, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla.
President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate, on Aug. 26, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla.

Trump lawyers sanctioned for 'fatally flawed' and redundant arguments

Engoron also sanctioned five of Trump’s lawyers for filing the same frivolous arguments to dismiss the case repeatedly, which he called “pure sophistry” and “fatally flawed.”

The judge ordered lawyers Michael Madaio, Michael Farino, Clifford Robert, Christopher Kise and Armen Morian to each pay $7,500 to the Lawyer’s Fund for Client Protection of the State of New York within a month.

The lawyers had asked to dismiss the case by arguing James didn’t have the authority to pursue the case, that the public interest wasn’t served by the lawsuit and that the allegations should have been considered in a court specializing in business.

But the lawyers had already made those arguments, which Engoron rejected, with his decision upheld on appeal.

“Defendants’ conduct in reiterating these frivolous arguments is egregious,” Engoron wrote. “Defendants’ repetition of them here is indefensible.”

FILE - New York Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference, Sept. 21, 2022, in New York. New York's attorney general filed a federal lawsuit on Thursday, June 8, 2023, against an anti-abortion group whose members have been arrested for blocking access to health care clinics in New York and other states. (AP Photo/Brittainy Newman, File) ORG XMIT: NYSS407

Trump calls judge 'deranged,' James looks forward to trial

Trump called Engoron's finding of fraud "both ridiculous and untrue" in a post on Truth Social. He called the judge "deranged" and the prosecutor "biased and corrupt."

His son, Eric Trump, who oversaw the company while his father was in the White House, said he lost faith in the justice system.

"Never before have I seen such hatred toward one person by a judge − a coordinated effort with the Attorney General to destroy a man’s life, company and accomplishments," Eric Trump said on X, formerly known as Twitter. "We have run an exceptional company − never missing a loan payment, making banks hundreds of millions of dollars, developing some of the most iconic assets in the world."

Kise, one of Trump's lawyers, called the decision "outrageous" and "completely disconnected from the facts and governing law." He threatened to appeal, "to rectify this miscarriage of justice."

But James, the attorney general who filed the case, noted the judge found "Trump and the Trump Organization engaged in years of financial fraud."

"We look forward to presenting the rest of our case at trial," James said on X.

Kevin Wallace, the senior enforcement counsel in James' office, said the trial would allow evidence that could bolster the case for monetary penalties for benefits derived from the fraud.

Potential witnesses at the trial include Trump and his children: Ivanka, Eric and Donald Trump Jr. Other witnesses include former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who described the company's questionable property valuations at a congressional hearing, and Trump Organization officials including Allen Weisselberg, who was convicted of tax fraud.

Donald Trump with his children in 2014. From left, Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka.
Donald Trump with his children in 2014. From left, Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka.

What does the decision mean for Trump?

The implications of Engoron's ruling are uncertain.

The judge canceled Trump's business certificates in New York and ordered lawyers to recommend no more than three potential managers to oversee the dissolution of the companies.

But Kise, one of Trump's lawyers, asked the judge whether the decision meant Trump would be required to close up shop or relinquish prized assets such as buildings with his name on them.

"Is it the court's position that those assets are now going to be sold or just going to be managed" under a court-ordered receiver? Kise asked.

Engeron huddled with his law clerk, Allison Greenfield, before asking government and defense lawyers to submit written proposals for a manager, which is technically called a receiver, within 30 days.

"I'm not prepared to issue a ruling right now but we will take that up in various contexts, I'm sure," Engoron said.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 8: E. Jean Carroll arrives at Manhattan federal court on May 8, 2023 in New York City. Attorneys for E. Jean Carroll and Donald Trump are set to give closing arguments Monday morning in the battery and defamation trial against the former president in Manhattan federal court. (Photo by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 775975213 ORIG FILE ID: 1253154783

Trump faces five other civil and criminal trials in next year while campaigning for president

The fraud case is one of a handful of civil and criminal trials Trump faces during the next year as he campaigns to return to the White House:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New York trial to set Trump damages after judge finds real estate fraud