AP

Here’s a look inside Donald Trump’s $355 million civil fraud verdict as an appeals fight looms

Feb 17, 2024, 8:00 PM

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump holds gold Trump sneakers at Sneake...

Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump holds gold Trump sneakers at Sneaker Con Philadelphia, an event popular among sneaker collectors, in Philadelphia, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

NEW YORK (AP) — On the witness stand last year, Donald Trump proclaimed: “I have a lot of cash.”

After Friday’s eye-popping penalty in his New York civil fraud trial, he’s going to need it — and maybe more.

A judge ordered the former president to fork over $355 million of his fortune, plus interest, finding he lied for years about his wealth on financial statements he used to secure loans and make deals as he built the real estate empire that vaulted him to fame and the presidency.

“The frauds found here leap off the page and shock the conscience,” Judge Arthur Engoron wrote in a 92-page decision that spares Trump’s company from closure, but forces it into years of court supervision, among other sanctions.

The ruling, after a 2½-month trial in New York Attorney General Letitia James’ lawsuit cuts to the core of Trump’s image as a wealthy, shrewd real estate mogul turned political force.

The financial penalty — staggering even for a businessman who’s seen casinos, an airline and other ventures fail — adds to Trump’s mounting legal debts and could put the Republican presidential front-runner in a serious cash crunch as he campaigns to retake the White House.

Trump, who’s also dealing with four criminal cases, decried Friday’s ruling as “election inference” and has vowed to appeal.
Here’s a look at the case, the penalties and what’s next for Trump.

WHAT DID THE JUDGE DECIDE?

Engoron ruled that Trump engaged in a yearslong conspiracy with top executives at his company, the Trump Organization, to deceive banks and insurers about the size of his wealth and the true value of such properties as Trump Tower in Manhattan and his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.

Engoron, who ruled before the trial that Trump and his co-defendants committed fraud with his financial statements, found Trump liable on five of the six remaining claims in James’ lawsuit: falsifying business records, issuing false financial statements, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and conspiracy to falsify business records.

Two former longtime Trump Organization executives, Allen Weisselberg and Jeffrey McConney, were also found liable for insurance fraud.

Engoron decided the case because state law doesn’t allow for juries in this type of lawsuit, which sought what’s known as “equitable relief” and has different rules than other cases with big-money penalties. Also, he noted, neither side asked for a jury.

WAIT, HOW MUCH DOES TRUMP OWE?

Trump could ultimately end up owing a half-billion dollars or more as a result of Friday’s verdict.

In addition to the $355 million penalty — payback of what the judge deemed “ill-gotten gains” from his spurious financial statements — Trump is required to pay interest on that amount.

At an annual rate of 9%, as prescribed by New York law, that adds up fast.

James’ office calculates that, to date, Trump owes an additional $98.6 million in interest, bringing his total penalty to $453.5 million. The interest will keep accruing until Trump pays.

In his ruling, Engoron ruled that the interest Trump owes on about half of the total penalty amount, pertaining to loan savings, can be calculated from the start of the investigation in 2019. Some interest on the remaining amount, which pertains to more recent transactions, can be calculated starting in May 2022 or June 2023.

In all, Engoron imposed $363.9 million in penalties on Trump and his co-defendants, including his sons Eric and Donald Trump Jr., or about $464 million with interest, according to James’ office.

Trump maintains that he is worth several billion dollars and testified last year that he had about $400 million in cash, in addition to properties and other investments.

WHY DOES TRUMP OWE SO MUCH?

Engoron found that Trump’s phony wealth claims were critical to his success, affording him lower loan interest rates and allowing him to build projects he wouldn’t have otherwise been able to finish. The judge determined that those savings and windfall profits were “ill-gotten gains” and ordered him and his co-defendants to cough them up to the state, with interest.

Trump, both individually and as the owner of various corporate entities, must pay:

— $168 million, plus interest, in savings on loans he obtained using his inflated financial statements for a golf resort near Miami, a Chicago hotel and condominium tower, a Washington, D.C. hotel and a Manhattan office building. Trump obtained three of the loans through Deutsche Bank’s private wealth management unit, which offered lower interest rates than its commercial real estate division, and used his financial statements to show the bank he was wealthy and a good credit risk.

— $126.8 million, plus interest, in profit from selling the Trump International Hotel in Washington in May 2022 to a company that now operates it as a Waldorf Astoria. Trump used $170 million of the $375 million to pay off a loan on the property. Other proceeds went to his children.

— $60 million, plus interest, from selling the rights to manage a New York City golf course in June 2023. Engoron noted in his ruling that the buyer, Bally’s Corporation, stands to pay Trump an additional $115 million if it obtains a casino license for the property. However, he did not say if he would require Trump to give up that money, too.

Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Jr., must each pay a little over $4 million, plus interest, to the state for their shares of the Washington hotel sales. Weisselberg, the former Trump Organization finance chief, was ordered to pay $1 million — half of the $2 million severance he’s receiving.

WHAT DO TRUMP AND HIS LAWYERS SAY?

Trump called the decision “weaponization against a political opponent” and complained that he was being penalized for “having built a perfect company, great cash, great buildings, great everything.”

“President Trump will of course appeal and remains confident the Appellate Division will ultimately correct the innumerable and catastrophic errors made by a trial court untethered to the law or to reality,” Trump lawyer Christopher Kise said.

Trump and his lawyers have said that outside accountants that helped prepare his financial statements should’ve flagged any discrepancies and that the documents came with disclaimers that shielded him from liability. They say Trump never told anyone to inflate the value of assets and that, if there were discrepancies, no one was harmed.

“There were no victims because the banks made a lot of money,” Trump said Friday, echoing his trial testimony in November.

Trump testified that regardless of what his financial statements said, banks did their own due diligence and would’ve qualified him for the loans anyway. He said there’s no evidence that the terms or pricing would have been any different.

HOW WILL TRUMP’S APPEAL UNFOLD?

Trump isn’t able to appeal the decision just yet because the clerk’s office at Engoron’s courthouse still has to file paperwork to make it official.

Once that happens, Trump can file an appeal with New York’s Appellate Division, a mid-level appeals court just above Engoron’s trial court in the state’s judicial hierarchy. His lawyers are almost certain to ask for an immediate stay — a legal term for an order halting enforcement of Engoron’s decision while the appeals process plays out.

Under state law, Trump will receive an automatic stay if he puts up money, assets or an appeal bond covering the amount he owes. The appeals process typically takes months, if not a year or more. If Trump is unsuccessful at the Appellate Division, he can ask the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, to consider taking his case.

Any appeal is likely to focus on Engoron, whom Trump’s lawyers have accused of “tangible and overwhelming” bias, as well as objections to the legal mechanics involved in James’ lawsuit. Trump contends the law she sued him under is a consumer-protection statute that’s normally used to rein in businesses that rip off customers.

Trump’s lawyers have already gone to the Appellate Division at least 10 times to challenge Engoron’s prior rulings, including during the trial in an unsuccessful bid to reverse a gag order and $15,000 in fines for violations after Trump made a disparaging and false social media post about a key court staffer.

Trump’s lawyers have long argued that some of the allegations are barred by the statute of limitations, contending that Engoron failed to comply with an Appellate Division ruling last year that he narrow the scope of the trial to weed out outdated allegations.

WHAT ELSE DID THE DECISION SAY?

Engoron set strict limitations on the Trump Organization’s ability to do business, but took the “corporate death penalty” off the table, rescinding his earlier decision to strip Trump of his companies.

The judge placed the company under an independent monitor’s continued supervision for at least three years, ordered the hiring of an independent compliance director and forced a shakeup in its leadership. He wrote that without the restrictions, Trump and his co-defendants were “likely to continue their fraudulent ways.”

The judge imposed a two-year ban on Trump’s sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., from serving as a director or officer of a New York company, effectively booting them from their roles managing the Trump Organization’s day-to-day operations.

Trump, who owns the company but no longer has an official leadership position, was given a three-year ban. Engoron also banned him and his companies for three years from getting loans from banks registered in New York, widely regarded as the financial capital of the world.
Weisselberg and another longtime company executive, ex-controller Jeffrey McConney, were barred from ever holding a corporate finance or leadership role in the state.

Engoron wrote that taking away Trump’s companies was no longer necessary because it will be under a “two-tiered oversight” with the independent monitor, retired federal judge Barbara Jones, and the compliance director keeping an eye on potentially fraudulent activities.

HOW DID THIS CASE COME ABOUT?

James, a Democrat, sued Trump in 2022 under a decades-old New York law that gives her broad power to investigate allegations of persistent fraud in business dealings.

James started investigating Trump’s financial statements in 2019 after his former personal lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, provided Congress with copies of some of the documents and testified that his former boss had a history of exaggerating the value of his assets.

Cohen served federal prison time for violating campaign finance laws in connection with an alleged hush-money scheme that is the subject of Trump’s New York criminal case. Cohen also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress, a charge Trump and his lawyers say undermines his credibility.

James’s lawsuit accused Trump and his co-defendants of routinely puffing up his financial statements — a yearly snapshot of his holdings — to create the illusion that he and his properties were far more valuable than they actually were.

Trump used the statements to banks and others he did business with, and even handed them over to financial magazines like Forbes to justify his place among the world’s billionaires.

WHAT WERE SOME THINGS TRUMP WAS ACCUSED OF?

Among other tricks, Trump and his co-defendants were accused of overvaluing his Trump Tower penthouse in Manhattan for years based on figures wrongly listing it as three times its actual size, 10,996 square feet (1,022 square meters).

They were also accused of valuing his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida at more than $612 million based on the idea that the property could be developed for residential use, when he had signed an agreement surrendering rights to develop it for any uses but a club.

Trump “was aware of having deeded away the right to use Mar-a-Lago as anything other than a social club, and notwithstanding, continued to value it as if it could be used as a single family residence,” Engoron wrote in his decision.

“He was aware that the Triplex apartment in which he, a real estate mogul and self-identified expert, resided for decades was not 30,000 square feet, but actually 10,996 square feet,” the judge said.

At trial, Trump insisted that he believed Mar-a-Lago is currently worth between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

That would make it worth “more than the most expensive private residence listed in the country by approximately 400%,” Engoron wrote.

HOW DID THE JUDGE ASSESS TRUMP AND OTHER KEY WITNESSES?

Trump’s defiant, rambling turn as a trial witness led Engoron to warn: “This is not a political rally.” How did the judge really feel about Trump’s 3½ hours under oath?

“Overall, Donald Trump rarely responded to the questions asked, and he frequently interjected long, irrelevant speeches on issues far beyond the scope of the trial,” Engoron wrote in his decision. “His refusal to answer the questions directly, or in some cases, at all, severely compromised his credibility.”

Assessing other key witnesses, Engoron wrote that Weisselberg “was intentionally evasive, with large gaps of ‘I don’t remember,'” and that Cohen proved truthful despite “palpable” animosity between him and Trump, some “seeming contradictions” in his testimony and the cloud of his guilty plea.

The judge wrote that Weisselberg’s severance agreement, signed before he went to jail for 100 days in an unrelated tax fraud case “renders his testimony highly unreliable” because it bars him from voluntarily cooperating with law enforcement.

“The Trump Organization keeps Weisselberg on a short leash, and it shows,” Engoron wrote.

Prosecutors are weighing a potential perjury charge against Weisselberg over his testimony at the civil fraud trial, but Engoron did not mention that in his ruling.

The judge said that while Cohen had an “incentive to lie” after falling out with Trump, he found the ex-lawyer’s testimony credible based on his relaxed manner, the general plausibility of his statements, and, “most importantly, the way his testimony was corroborated by other trial evidence.”

“A less-forgiving factfinder might have concluded differently, might not have believed a single word of a convicted perjurer,” Engoron wrote. “This factfinder does not believe that pleading guilty to perjury means that you can never tell the truth. Michael Cohen told the truth.”

___
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Jake Offenhartz and Jill Colvin in New York and Adriana Gomez Licon in Palm Beach, Florida, contributed to this report.

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Here’s a look inside Donald Trump’s $355 million civil fraud verdict as an appeals fight looms