It’s been a long time coming, so the lawsuit over alleged fraud comes as no surprise. Letitia James had a couple of other surprises up her sleeve, however, but we’ll get to that in a moment. As expected, the Attorney General filed a civil action against the Trumps this morning, a filing over 200 pages that alleges fraud in real estate, lending, insurance, and tax transactions:
The New York state attorney general filed a sweeping lawsuit Wednesday against former President Donald Trump, three of his adult children and the Trump Organization, alleging they were involved in an expansive fraud lasting over a decade that the former President used to enrich himself.
In the more than 200-page lawsuit, Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, alleges the fraud touched all aspects of the Trump business, including its properties and golf courses. According to the lawsuit, the Trump Organization deceived lenders, insurers and tax authorities by inflating the value of his properties using misleading appraisals.
“These acts of fraud and misrepresentation were similar in nature, were committed by upper management at the Trump Organization as part of a common endeavor for each annual Statement, and were approved at the highest levels of the Trump Organization — including by Mr. Trump himself,” the lawsuit states.
Trump and his children, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump and Ivanka Trump, are named as defendants in the lawsuit. Allen Weisselberg, former CFO for the Trump Organization, and Jeff McConney, another longtime company executive, are also named.
As I’ve written before, much of this still seems curious, especially in the form of a civil lawsuit by James. If the Trumps committed fraud in their lending, insurance, or real estate transactions, who did they defraud? None of the lenders are apparently on board with this action, as Trump has continued to pay off his loans, making them whole regardless of the estimates he would have provided. Neither does there appear to be any significant conversion of funds on insurance claims. And even if those did prove fraudulent, lenders and insurers would have standing to sue Trump on their own to recover losses. If they’re not suing, why is James?
Tax issues are another matter, but even there, tax authorities have their own collection power. They could have taken Trump to court, assess liens on his properties and income, and so on. Did they? And since when do tax authorities take the word of property owners on valuation anyway? That’s not the way it works in most places — and if that’s the way it works in the Big Apple, then James should be aiming her investigation at public corruption rather than assessment issues.
It’s certainly possible that James has a case. It’s also at least as possible that she has a need for political stunts. We’ll see when everyone gets into court, but it’s very weird that an AG would opt for a civil suit on behalf of “victims” who apparently aren’t acting on their own behalf as such.
Perhaps on that basis, James is seeking to get others involved in her battle:
James’s suit relies on a special statute for repeat instances of alleged violations of the law, stemming from real estate transactions. She is also filing a criminal referral to federal prosecutors with the Southern District of New York and a separate tax fraud referral to the IRS for the same underlying allegations.
That also seems strange. If Trump’s transactions broke federal criminal law, one has to assume that they would have crossed New York state law as well, and perhaps even more so as real-estate transactions in Manhattan are generally state and local jurisdiction. If Trump broke criminal laws, then James has all the authority she needs to indict and prosecute Trump. The Manhattan DA’s office has been trying to make that case for years without success, at least so far. Why refer it to the Department of Justice instead, unless James knows there’s no case and she wants some additional political cover?
The IRS referral may be an entirely different kettle of fish, of course. Trump has been jousting with the IRS for many years already. James may well have uncovered information they’ll find helpful in their two-decades-long audit efforts. City and state property tax authorities have their own assessment systems, but the IRS relies more on self-reporting. If Trump fraudulently manipulated appraisals to limit his tax liabilities, the IRS will come down on him like a ton of bricks — but still, most likely in civil actions at first. Very expensive civil actions, but that’s generally their first approach on dealing with disputes. Given the length of their battle with Trump, however, maybe he shouldn’t bet on that.
In any case, we will soon know what case James actually has, and whether it sticks.