It’s about as Trump as a moment gets. There was the Donald at his new golf club in the rolling Scottish dunes. He was holding a massive, gleaming, gold-colored plaque proclaiming the venue “The Best Golf Course Worldwide.” Trump, the real estate mogul and now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, wore a hat with his name on it and a massive grin.
The gaudy plaque Trump carried that day in 2013 was a Star Diamond award distributed by the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences — a group that turns out to have extensive ties with Trump.
Joseph Cinque, the academy’s president and CEO, personally presented the award to Trump in Scotland. It was one of many similar honors Cinque has bestowed upon him in the past decade. Cinque, who has been described by the academy as one of Trump’s “dear friends,” is also a convicted felon who reportedly survived a murder attempt, was associated with the infamous mob boss John Gotti and went on to earn the nicknames “Joey No Socks” and “the Preppy Don.”
Trump recently held one of the top three slots on the organization’s board of trustees, with the ostentatious title of “Ambassador Extraordinaire.” Members of Trump’s family and multiple executives at his company, the Trump Organization, have also sat on the academy’s board of trustees, which selects award winners. Cinque runs the academy out of his apartment on Central Park South in Manhattan, just blocks from Trump Tower.
In a conversation with Yahoo News on Thursday morning, Trump denied he had any involvement with the ratings group, which has bestowed numerous five- and six-star ratings on his properties.
“I mean, I receive awards from different places sometimes, but I’m not involved in it. How am I involved in it?” said Trump.
Trump indicated he didn’t know much about the academy’s board of trustees — on which he, two of his sons and multiple members of his organizations have served. He also claimed he doesn’t know Cinque well.
“He may have set up a board of trustees. I don’t know. I don’t know that my sons are involved with that, actually,” Trump said, adding, “But he’s a very nice man. I don’t know him well. I don’t know him well, but I have found him over the years to be a very nice man.”
Donald Trump and Joseph Cinque posing at Trump’s annual Mar-A-Lago New Year’s Eve party in 2014 that was displayed on the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences Facebook page. (Photo: Fcebook.com/StarDiamondAward)
The academy’s central activity is handing out Star Diamond awards, which it has called the “most prestigious emblem of achievement and true quality in the world today.” Trophies are given out to a wide variety of businesses and individuals, with a focus on luxury travel and restaurants. Presenting plaques and holding awards ceremonies are the only activities described on the organization’s web site, which boasts that its awards give “a visual seal of approval by accredited institution.” The academy site brags that the Star Diamond is a “handcrafted plaque” that “denotes quality and luxury” and that patrons to a business will “notice” when one is “prominently displayed.”
The academy is one of many players in what industry experts describe as a crowded landscape of travel ratings agencies with questionable standards and methods.
In addition to the plaques, the academy also offers Star Diamond “desk plates,” “lapel pins” and “cufflinks.” And it boasts of other “benefits” promised by the foundation, such as sending out a press release announcing the award, to generate media coverage. The academy also publishes a magazine and a directory that promotes the winners.
Even though a major function of the academy is to generate press for award recipients, the organization is currently in media blackout mode. Yahoo News called the academy’s headquarters at Cinque’s apartment. A woman who answered said, after realizing she was on the phone with a reporter, that Cinque would “not comment” on any story. She said she didn’t want to know any more about the reason for the call and suggested contacting the academy’s lawyer.
“We don’t want to talk to any attorneys here or any reporters. I’m sorry,” the woman said.
She would not give her name, adding, “I’m not able to comment. Thank you so much.”
In an angry email response, academy attorney Andrew Langsam threatened Yahoo News with legal action if it were to discuss decades-old news reports detailing accusations about the academy’s ratings practices, Cinque’s criminal record and his alleged ties to the mob.
“We are not amused by this clear attempt to sully the Academy, Mr. Cinque and any of his friends or contacts. You will be held fully liable for any consequences,” Langsam wrote.
The Star Diamond awards are sleek, metallic and festooned with stars – almost a perfect manifestation of the Trump aesthetic. Indeed, up until last year, some of the plaques given to Star Diamond recipients prominently featured Trump’s signature. As the “Ambassador Extraordinaire,” Trump signed the awards with two other top board members, Cinque and travel agent Bill Fischer.
A Star Diamond Award plaque bearing Donald Trump’s signature that was displayed on the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences Facebook page. (Photo: Fcebook.com/StarDiamondAward)
But Trump’s presidential bid — and the controversial statements that have propelled him toward the nomination — may have cost him his position at the academy.
The webpage listing the academy’s board of trustees was taken offline this week when Yahoo News reported on this story. However, before the page disappeared, it showed that Trump had been replaced as “ambassador extraordinaire” by journalist Rita Cosby . In a message posted to the group’s Facebook page last December, a German chef named Christian Armster complained that as long as “Mr. Trump is representing and undersigning” the Star Diamond award, it is “not worth an dime to recieve [sic] this plate.” The academy responded with a statement saying that it had severed ties with Trump once he began his foray into politics.
“The opinions expressed by Mr. Trump do not reflect the views of the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences. Our accolade is strictly all about good hospitality and service no matter who it is intended for,” the organization wrote on its Facebook page. “Once Mr. Trump took on the role to run for President we thought it best to part ways. So you should Remain proud your award which is in excellent company when it comes to the finest in the Hospitality Industry.”
For his part, Trump said he would “understand” if the academy, a nonpolitical group, had to cut ties with him. At the same time, he repeatedly stressed that he “wasn’t involved” with the group and suggested that his title was largely ceremonial.
“I think I might have been on something, Ambassador Extraordinaire, you know. I never went to a meeting or anything,” Trump said.
Langsam, the academy’s attorney, wrote:“I do not believe that Mr. Trump has any current relationship to The Academy.”
In addition to his past role at the academy, Trump has had a long personal relationship with Cinque. One post on the Star Diamond website features an article on a party Trump held at his Mar-A-Lago club on the last night of 2014.
“Joseph Cinque, President of The AAHS, has been attending Mr. Trump’s party for the past 16 years,” the article said. “It is somewhat of a new Years Eve tradition for him and of course, he has become dear friends with the Trump family.”
Cinque presented Trump with a Star Diamond “lifetime achievement award” at that bash. The article features multiple photos of Cinque beaming alongside Trump and his family. Trump regularly has Cinque present him with awards at his events. Multiple photos on the academy site show Trump proudly awarding and receiving Star Diamond plaques. An academy promotional video features a clip of Trump, one of his buildings and a shot of Cinque standing in front of one of Trump’s private planes.
“It’s a great honor for me to welcome you to the Star Diamond award,” Trump declares in the clip.
Another Trump event with a Cinque ceremony was a birthday party the real estate mogul held for himself at one of his fading Atlantic City casinos in 2006. Trump and Cinque flashed smiles as they stood between guests, press and a bank of new Playboy slot machines. They were accompanied by actress Pamela Anderson.
“Joe is probably one of the most important men in the hotel industry, because he rates hotels and resorts,” Trump said to the crowd.
Though he has presented, received and even signed the Star Diamond awards, Trump maintained in his conversation with Yahoo News that he is merely a proud recipient of the accolades.
“I like to get the awards. I get them from Mobil, I get them from Forbes. I get them from, you know, many different places,” Trump said. “I get the awards and I always like to get awards for my places. It’s always a nice thing to get.”
Joseph Cinque presenting Trump with a lifetime achievement award at the 2014 New Year’s Ever party at Mar-A-Lago. (Photo: StarDiamondAward.com)
Before he was giving Trump awards, Cinque had a far different career. He was profiled in 1995 by New York Magazine , which reported he was “shot three times and left for dead” in a 1980 incident Cinque called a “robbery” and “officials” described as “more likely a hit.” The article, which was written by John Connolly, also noted Cinque “used to be friends with John Gotti” and detailed his criminal record.
“In 1989, Cinque was arrested on felony charges police had retrieved a gallery’s worth of stolen art from his apartment,” Connolly wrote, explaining that officers broke down Cinque’s front door to gain access and that prosecutors alleged the cops found three artworks recently taken from Manhattan galleries, worth a combined total of of $49,000 at the time — nearly $100,000 in today’s dollars.
Cinque’s art stash included two prints by the artist Marc Chagall. He pleaded guilty to felony charges. Anne Heyman, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case, told the magazine that the prosecution’s intention was to offer a misdemeanor deal, but that it was rescinded after an informant overheard Cinque in conversation with Gotti . At the time, Gotti headed the Gambino organized crime family, making him one of the most powerful mob bosses in the country. A few years later, in 1992, Gotti received a life sentence for murder and racketeering. He died almost a decade later, in federal prison.
Heyman told New York Magazine that Gotti’s chat with Cinque took place during a chance courtroom encounter. She said Cinque told Gotti about the stolen art case and the mob kingpin promised to “take care of the D.A.” for Cinque. Heyman said prosecutors also discovered more about the scope of Cinque’s criminal activities just as they heard about his alleged talk with Gotti.
“On the same day,” Heyman said, “our office learned from a confidential source that Mr. Cinque was dealing drugs out of his apartment and fencing stolen art work.”
It was not possible to ask her about Cinque as Heyman, who later became a well-known philanthropist, was killed in 2014 in an equestrian accident during a show-jumping competition in Florida.
The New York Magazine story also reported that Cinque had become known by a pair of colorful nicknames , “Joey No Socks” and “the Preppy Don,” having replaced his circle of “wise guys” for an uptown crowd after he recovered from the shooting.
“I gave up the wholesale used-car business and the wise guys, you know — street guys,” Cinque told the magazine. “Muffy, Buffy and Biff became my life. These trust-fund preppies need someone like me to keep them out of trouble.”
Langsam, the academy’s attorney, wrote that Cinque had “never mentioned” knowing Gotti in any of their conversations.
“I have represented the Academy and Mr. Cinque for over 15 years, and Mr. Cinque has a very high profile as to many of his friends,” Langsam said. “I have spent hours with him, and he has never mentioned — not once — Mr. Gotti, whereas Mr. Cinque has surely mentioned many other high-profile individuals with which he is and has been friends.”
Joseph Cinque speaks onstage during Celebrity Fight Night XVI on March 20, 2010 at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Celebrity Fight Night)
Even more accusations about Cinque’s alleged criminal activity were published by Richard Lawrence Dombroff, a high-profile New York plastic surgeon who was convicted of defrauding patients in 1987 , amid allegations that he had allowed unlicensed individuals, including a chauffeur, to perform medical procedures at his clinics.
In excerpts of a rambling, novelistic memoir he has published on a personal website, Dombroff says he was friends with Cinque and recounts a number of memories about him. Dombroff claims, among other things, that Cinque once boasted of buying jewelry stolen in violent robberies and that Cinque was able to stay out of prison thanks to work as a government informant.
Dombroff initially served just two months in prison. He went back behind bars after he was convicted on fraud charges again in 2003 for allegedly operating a financial scam. Yahoo News could not reach Dombroff for comment.
Yahoo News asked Langsam, the academy’s attorney, about the allegations concerning Cinque’s past that were reported by New York Magazine and Dombroff. Langsam suggested there has been unspecified “wrong information” reported about Cinque. He also questioned the news value of citing previously published information about Cinque.
“Your ‘sources’ seem years old and you are not adding any new facts. Sounds like 20-20 hindsight,” Langsam wrote in an email.
Langsam threatened to take legal action if Yahoo News referred to past reports detailing accusations about the academy’s ratings practices, Cinque’s criminal record and alleged ties to the mob.
“You will be personally held responsible,” Langsam wrote, later adding, “You are advised to seek legal counsel.”
For his part, Trump said he was not familiar with Cinque’s criminal past.
“I don’t know him. I just find him to be a very nice man, and I don’t know his background. I really don’t,” Trump said of Cinque.
Donald Trump presents the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences Star Diamond award to New York Knicks basketball player Amar'e Stoudemire at The Oak Room on October 12, 2010 in New York City. (Photo: Arnaldo Magnani/Getty Images)
Trump’s direct association with Cinque’s academy may have ended as his presidential campaign began, but his associates have maintained roles with the organization. Cinque’s practices at the academy have also been questioned.
Both New York Magazine and Radar Online have reported that the academy charges fees to those who receive its awards. In 1995, New York Magazine said Cinque collected “initiation fees” of $1,000 and annual “dues” of $495. The magazine also claimed that Cinque declined to talk about how he made his money and was “oddly reticent” when asked about the academy. Radar called the academy a “five star scam” in a 2008 article and quoted an unnamed source who said Cinque was “getting by on free meals and the fees he charges hotels and restaurants to mention the ‘prestigious’ award in their promotional packages.” It is unclear whether the academy has continued to charge fees to award recipients like those mentioned by Radar and New York Magazine.
Langsam, the academy attorney, vehemently denied that the organization collects fees from award recipients.
“The Academy does not take any money from any Award Recipient in exchange for that resort, hotel or restaurant being worthy of such an Award,” Langsam wrote, adding, “There Is no amount of money which is exchanged between a recipient and The Academy for receipt of the Award.”
Yahoo News asked Trump if he had to pay for his Star Diamond awards or if they were free. He offered a noncommittal response.
“It’s an honor. It’s an honor,” Trump said.
It’s not clear exactly how the academy evaluates the wide variety of businesses and individuals who receive Star Diamond awards. According to its website, Cinque brought the organization from Chicago to New York in 1989 and gave it an international scope. In a 2009 article written for Haute Living, Cinque gave a somewhat vague explanation of the “Diamond Standard” by which the awards are judged.
“To earn the Five Star Diamond Award, an establishment must come highly recommended from a number of well-regarded sources that are discerning world travelers. After careful internal review from our international board of trustees we embark on the rewarding journey of vetting the venue in various categories of performance,” Cinque said.
Cinque’s academy has awarded its trophies to a diverse group of hotels and restaurants around the world. There are also some less glamorous recipients, including a dentist,a Michigan jewelry store, a Manhattan dry cleaner and the state of Rhode Island.
Katherine Spiers, a veteran food and travel writer who hosts the podcast “How It Got in Your Mouth” and who regularly appears on the Los Angeles public radio station KCRW, said she was not familiar with the academy. However, she described the food and travel landscape as being “rife” with questionable ratings agencies.
“They’re usually started by rich people who want to be friends with chefs,” Spiers said. “It’s a symbiotic relationship — everyone gets plaques, and everyone profits.”
Spiers pointed to anecdotal evidence that ratings are valuable marketing tools, even if consumers have no idea where they’re coming from.
“Ratings work because people believe them — I’ve stayed in ‘five-star’ hotels in Switzerland and Italy that didn’t have reliable plumbing. I don’t know who decided they had five stars, but the five stars were definitely why my grandparents chose those hotels,” Spiers quipped.
Trump has racked up Star Diamond award plaques for his various properties. Back in 2008, Radar said Trump packed the Academy’s board of trustees with three of his staffers, who, along with Cinque, his girlfriend and another Trump ally, were “exactly the number needed to bestow an award.”
It’s hard to say who is on the board now, since the academy’s web page listing trustees went offline this week. Before it was taken down, the site showed three Trump staffers on the board: the general manager of Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, N.J., the executive vice president of his Mar-a-Lago club and Trump’s controversial former butler, Anthony Senecal. In the past, the COO of Trump’s company, Matt Calamari, has also been named by the academy as a trustee, and two of Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., were “honorary trustees.”
Trump’s butler, Tony Senecal, posed with a Star Diamond award plaque in a picture from his Facebook page. (Photo: Facebook.com/ServiceServiceService)
Under the leadership of Trump, his executives and his family, the academy has lavished praise on a number of Trump’s hotels and clubs. Its site shows that 19 different Trump golf courses and hotels have been honored by the academy.
According to Radar, Trump once displayed a 10-foot version of the plaque at the Trump International Hotel in Manhattan. Today, the Star Diamond award emblem is proudly included on the websites of several of his golf courses. Trump’s New Jersey course, which is managed by an academy trustee, has a special section on its website that touts the award as “the most prestigious emblem of achievement and quality in the world.”
Trump said many honorees prominently showcase their Star Diamond plaques.
“He’s given awards to many of the great hotels of the world,” Trump said of Cinque. “And, you know, they proudly display those awards. I saw the other day on the Beverly Hills Hotel and, you know, many other hotels they proudly display the awards. That’s how I know Joe.”
While the academy generally hands out five-star awards, at least two of Trump’s properties, the Scottish golf course and Mar-a-Lago, have been awarded six-star honors by the academy.
In his email to Yahoo News, Langsam, the academy’s attorney, declined to reveal the criteria the organization uses to determine an institution has earned six rather than five stars. However, he stressed that the distinction is meaningful and employed all-caps lettering to emphasize this point.
“There is a definite difference between FIVE STAR DIAMOND AWARD and SIX STAR DIAMOND AWARD, not the least of which is a star,” Langsam wrote. “The internal considerations and deliberations of the Academy are highly confidential and not ‘news.’ This is not the public’s nor your business.”
The academy clearly keeps a tight lid on its inner workings.
In a phone call on Tuesday, Senecal, Trump’s former butler, declined to discuss his work with the organization.
Senecal’s Facebook page boasts that he is a “Star Diamond Butler” and included until recently photos of him in full butler’s regalia, grinning and pointing an umbrella at an academy plaque. Those pictures are no longer publicly available. He spent nearly two decades as Trump’s personal butler before becoming an unofficial historian at the mogul’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
“I did, yes,” Senecal said when asked if he worked for the foundation.
Senecal attributed his reluctance to discuss the academy to headlines he made last week when Mother Jones published a series of his Facebook comments. In the posts, Senecal accused President Obama of being, among other things, a Muslim and a “kenyan fraud.” Senecal also called for the president to be killed, prompting a Secret Service investigation.
“I don’t really want to make any comment on the academy without Joe Cinque’s OK,” Senecal said. “I would be happy to talk to Joe, see if Joe wants me to make any comment because of the controversy last week. I don’t want to embarrass the academy in any way.”
After promising that he would speak to Cinque, Senecal failed to call back.
While Senecal has unique reasons to want to avoid the press right now, he wasn’t the only person associated with the academy who was reluctant to discuss it.
Luka Siminiati worked as the academy’s “general manager” until last December. When Yahoo News called him about the academy, he anticipated the next question even before it was asked.
“How can I help? You calling for information for Donald Trump and the academy?” Siminiati asked, speaking in a heavy accent.
He wouldn’t say anything else.
“Why don’t you call some people who are currently working there? I think it would be easier, like the owner, or like other people,” Siminiati said, adding, “Look, there is no information I can give you nor that I want to give you, so it’s unfortunate, my friend.”
A photo that was featured on the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences website showing Trump receiving a Star Diamond award from Joseph Cinque at Trump International Golf Club Links in Scotland in 2013. (Photo: StarDiamondAward.com)
Cinque isn’t the only figure with a criminal past who has been linked to Trump. The real estate mogul’s past dealings with mob-linked companies have been extensively reported on. Some of his New York skyscrapers and properties in New Jersey were built with the help of mob-linked firms decades ago.
Of course, all of this must be seen in context. The mafia was a major presence in the construction trade in the region at the time. Trump was engaging in fairly common business practices and could even be considered to have been a victim of extortion. Trump emphasized this in his telephone call with Yahoo News.
“There are some industries in the construction industry where some of the people, you know, years ago, seemed to have ties,” he said Thursday. “And, you know, in many cases, they were the only people that did the work, meaning concrete frames and things like that.”
But Trump’s dealings with people linked to the mob are not confined to the distant past. On Tuesday, the Washington Post published a lengthy piece on Felix Sater, a mob informant and stock-fraud felon. Sater had a deal to build Trump-branded properties in Russia and the United States. At one point, the Post reported Sater used Trump Organization business cards and office space. Some of Sater’s projects eventually fell apart, and his company became involved in legal disputes. In his conversation with Yahoo News, Trump said he hadn’t read the article on Sater.
“He was a guy who would bring deals up here, but we did very few of them. … Who was that? Sa-ter? Sater, yeah, we did very few of the deals,” Trump said. “He was somebody that he worked for a company, he worked for a company and he would bring deals to us, but we did very few of the deals.”
Trump rejected the notion that he has a pattern of working with people who have mob ties, though he acknowledged that is an “option” in the real estate industry.
“I mean, I find that, I think, you have an option. But I just haven’t chosen to do it,” he said.