At Donald Trump’s civil trial, scrutiny shifts to son Eric’s ‘lofty ideas’ for valuing a property
Oct 19, 2023, 12:48 PM
NEW YORK (AP) —
The spotlight at Donald Trump’s civil fraud trial turned Thursday to the former president’s son Eric, with documents and testimony suggesting the scion envisioned a “lofty” value on a suburban New York golf course where the family business proposed building luxury townhouses.
The trial stems from New York Attorney General Letitia James’ claims that Trump, his company and executives, including Eric Trump, fraudulently inflated the value of the Westchester County golf club and other properties on financial statements given to lenders, insurers and others. Trump, the Republican front-runner in the 2024 presidential campaign, denies the allegations and says the documents actually underestimated the value of his prime properties.
Eric Trump, an executive vice president at the Trump Organization, sought an appraisal of the Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor, New York, in 2013, according to documents and testimony Thursday.
At the time, the Trumps were considering what’s known as a conservation easement on the property, according to David McArdle, an appraiser with the commercial real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield. A conservation easement is essentially an agreement to forgo development in exchange for a tax break.
McArdle said he was asked to figure out what the property would be worth if the Trump Organization built 71 high-end townhomes there, and he got substantial input from Eric Trump.
“Of course Eric Trump has lofty ideas on value,” assuming the townhouses would easily sell for $1,000 per square foot, McArdle wrote in an email to a fellow appraiser at the time.
“Eric loved this project. He thought it was very special. I didn’t disagree with him,” McArdle testified Thursday. He said that it wasn’t unusual for property owners to weigh in on the appraisal process and that he was “perfectly willing to listen,” while ultimately making his own professional judgment.
McArdle’s appraisal ultimately came in at $43.3 million. In an email exchange as a ballpark figure was becoming clear, he and some lawyers for the Trump company strategized about how to present it to their client.
McArdle said Thursday that Eric Trump may have had a “more lofty value” in mind, but a higher number wouldn’t have been credible. With one of the attorneys suggesting that the number might come under scrutiny from tax authorities or a court, the email discussion was a leadup “to finally tell Eric he should accept this value from the professionals that probably know this better than he,” McArdle testified.
Shortly after that email discussion, Eric Trump wrote in a message that he’d spoken to one of the attorneys and told McArdle to hold off sending the appraisal until further notice. McArdle said he wasn’t told why, noting that appraisals often “have a lot of stops and starts.”
He said he didn’t believe the final appraisal ever was sent.
Trump’s financial statements went on to list the golf course at values sometimes topping $100 million, according to James’ lawsuit. The villas weren’t built.
Lawyers for the Trumps haven’t yet had their turn to question McArdle. In pretrial testimony, Eric Trump said he didn’t recall much about engaging with McArdle and the other appraisers about the golf course, and that the easement was something the company briefly explored but didn’t pursue.
Both Eric and Donald Trump have attended some parts of the trial but weren’t there Thursday. Besides McArdle, the court also heard from a lending executive who said that Donald Trump’s claimed net worth played a role — but not a key one — in securing a $160 million refinancing loan on a Wall Street office building in 2015.
The executive, Jack Weisselberg of Ladder Capital, worked on the deal with Trump executives including his father, then-finance chief Allen Weisselberg.
An internal Ladder Capital document, shown in court Thursday, said the “deal strengths” included Trump’s stated net worth of nearly $5.8 billion, over $300 million of it in cash and other liquid assets — figures that reflected Trump’s 2014 financial statement.
“The net worth statement is one of many thing that we look at in the underwriting process. I wouldn’t say it was a key factor … it was a factor,” Weisselberg testified, explaining that “liquidity was what we were really paying attention to.”
Asked whether Ladder Capital had independently gathered financial information on Trump, Weisselberg said the data had come from the then-businessman.
Earlier in the trial, retired Deutsche Bank official Nicholas Haigh testified that Trump’s financial statements were key to approvals for hundreds of millions of dollars in loans in 2011 and 2012.
But the bank conducted “sanity checks” on Trump’s numbers, sometimes knocking significant amounts off his value estimates for such holdings as Trump Tower and his golf courses, Haigh said.
The state attorney general is seeking $250 million and a ban on Trump and other defendants doing business in New York.
In a pretrial ruling, Judge Arthur Engoron found that Trump and his company engaged in fraud, and ordered that a court-appointed receiver take control of some Trump companies, which could strip the ex-president of control over Trump Tower and other marquee properties. An appeals court has since blocked enforcement of that aspect of the ruling, at least for now.
Both Engoron and James are Democrats.
Associated Press writer Michael R. Sisak contributed to this report.