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DeBlasio Asks New York District Attorney To Probe Trump Taxes

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said Friday that he had asked Manhattan’s district attorney to investigate discrepancies ProPublica and WNYC revealed last fall between what President Donald Trump’s company reported in filings to city tax officials and what it reported in loan filings. The discrepancies made his properties seem more profitable to a lender and less profitable to the city’s tax authorities.

After ProPublica published its findings, de Blasio said Friday, the city decided to examine the issues. That process resulted in one matter being turned over to the district attorney in November. De Blasio said he made the referral “because there is a possibility of a criminal act having been committed.” The referral related to Trump’s historic downtown skyscraper at 40 Wall Street, a city spokeswoman added.

De Blasio’s comments came during a conversation with WNYC reporter and “Trump, Inc.” podcast co-host Ilya Marritz on the “Ask the Mayor” segment of “The Brian Lehrer Show.” De Blasio, who ended a presidential bid in September, said Trump’s efforts to avoid taxes have gone beyond the measures taken by most wealthy Americans. He “consistently has believed he was above the law, even before he was president,” de Blasio said. “So this is a real problem, and I think there could be some real exposure here.”

In an emailed statement, a Trump Organization spokeswoman blasted de Blasio for “using the power of his office to try and launch an investigation into his political opponent.” The statement called the allegations “unfounded and clearly motivated by politics.”

A mayoral spokeswoman said that “the Manhattan DA is the proper jurisdiction to investigate these claims, as the city can only review what is directly reported to us. The DA has the jurisdiction to take appropriate steps if they find wrongdoing.”

A spokesman for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. declined to comment.

For its October article, ProPublica used New York’s Freedom of Information Law to request records from Trump’s property tax appeals for four buildings, among them 40 Wall Street, Trump Tower and the Trump International Hotel and Tower. ProPublica compared those records with loan documents that became public when Trump’s lender, Ladder Capital, sold the debt on his properties as part of mortgage-backed securities. Both sets of records list multiple real estate and financial metrics, including occupancy, income and expenses.

In the case of 40 Wall Street, for example, documents intended for investors showed a striking rise in occupancy, illustrating the sort of “leasing momentum” that lenders and investors like to see. The company had told a lender that 40 Wall Street was 58.9 percent leased on Dec. 31, 2012, rising to 95 percent a few years later. But in filings with tax officials, the company reported it was already 81 percent leased as of Jan. 5, 2013.

A refinancing occurred in 2015, but as of 2018, the building had not met underwriters’ profit expectations, spending three months on a servicer’s “watch list” in 2016 because of lagging profit.

The story also found that in the lender’s reports, the building cited lower expenditures for property insurance and a ground lease than it did in filings made to tax officials some years. That made 40 Wall Street appear more profitable to lenders than it did to tax authorities.

A subsequent ProPublica story found that Trump Tower’s tax and loan filings also exhibited inconsistencies, even as to how much space the Trump’s company occupied in Trump Tower. The tower’s overall occupancy rate during three consecutive years appeared 11, 16 and 16 percentage points higher in filings to a lender than in reports to city tax officials, records showed.

Trump Organization attributed the discrepancies to differences in the reporting requirements for preparing tax submissions and loan submissions.

The city’s Tax Commission, which handles property tax appeals, also reviewed submissions by Trump’s company for space it owns in the Trump International Hotel and Tower, a person knowledgeable about the commission said. Trump’s company had failed to report income from antennae it rents on the roof. The commission’s examination, according to the person, found no problem.

Last year, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, who is now in prison, testified before Congress that Trump sometimes boosted the value of his assets in documents given to lenders in order to secure loans and reduced those values to lower their tax value. The Trump Organization and Trump himself are fighting multiple subpoenas for financial and tax records.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Trump Tower Tax Reporting Shows ‘Inconsistencies’

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Donald Trump’s business reported conflicting information about a key metric to New York City property tax officials and a lender who arranged financing for his signature building, Trump Tower in Manhattan, according to tax and loan documents obtained by ProPublica. The findings add a third major Trump property to two for which ProPublica revealed similar discrepancies last month.

In the latest case, the occupancy rate of the Trump Tower’s commercial space was listed, over three consecutive years, as 11, 16 and 16 percentage points higher in filings to a lender than in reports to city tax officials, records show.

For example, as of December 2011 and June 2012, respectively, Trump’s business told the lender that 99 percent and 98.7 percent of the tower’s commercial space was occupied, according to a prospectus for the loan. The figures were taken from “borrower financials,” the prospectus stated.

In tax filings, however, Trump’s business said the building’s occupancy was 83 percent in January 2012 and the same a year later. The 16 percentage point gap between the loan and tax filings is a “very significant difference,” said Susan Mancuso, an attorney who specializes in New York property tax.

A spokesperson for the Trump Organization said that “comparing the various reports is comparing apples to oranges” because reporting requirements differ.

Trump had much to gain by showing a high occupancy rate to lenders in 2012: He refinanced his share of Trump Tower that year and obtained a $100 million loan on favorable terms.

The vast majority of the gap between occupancy figures could be explained by diverging reports on how much space the Trump Organization used in Trump Tower. In loan documents, the company said it and its affiliates occupied 74,900 square feet in mid-2012, or 31 percent of the building. But tax reports from the January before and after listed the company and related parties as occupying 41,600 square feet — or about 18 percent of the tower.

“I cannot give you an explanation,” said Kevin Riordan, a financing expert, former accountant and real estate professor at Montclair State University who reviewed the tax and loan records for Trump Tower at ProPublica’s request.

More than a dozen tax and finance experts, presented with ProPublica’s earlier findings, also said they could not decipher a reason for the differences. As with Trump Tower, the discrepancies made the two properties — a skyscraper located at 40 Wall Street and the Trump International Hotel and Tower near Columbus Circle — appear more profitable to the lender and less so to property tax officials.

Those discrepancies were “versions of fraud,” according to Nancy Wallace, a professor of finance and real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. The penalties for false filings can include fines or criminal charges.

The diverging numbers match a pattern described by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, in congressional testimony this year. Cohen said Trump at times inflated assets’ value in documents submitted to lenders in an effort to secure loans. In reports to tax officials, Cohen testified, Trump would lower the value to reduce what he owed.

The focus on Trump’s business and personal financial records has been particularly intense of late. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has subpoenaed a wide array of Trump financial records to investigate claims that the Trump Organization falsified records of hush-money payments to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels, who said she and Trump had a sexual encounter. (He has denied the affair.)

Congressional lawmakers are seeking Trump’s personal tax returns, as well as other financial information, as part of their investigation into potential foreign influence on the presidency. Two federal courts have affirmed lawmakers’ right to enforce the subpoenas, and Trump has appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

ProPublica used New York’s Freedom of Information Law to obtain property tax filings for four of Trump’s Manhattan buildings, including Trump Tower. The income and expense statements Trump filed when repeatedly appealing the city’s valuation of his property are public under the law. We then compared information in the tax reports to loan data made public when Trump’s debt became part of pools of loans sold publicly as bonds known as commercial mortgage-backed securities.

Information in tax and loan filings can differ for legitimate reasons, experts said. A small portion of the occupancy gap at Trump Tower did appear to have an explanation: About 2.5 percentage points of the discrepancy in 2012 consisted of an instance where the Trump Organization treated newly leased, but still empty, space as full in its loan documents (which Trump’s lender disclosed) but not in tax documents.

The Trump Organization refinanced Trump Tower in 2012, replacing its existing $27 million in debt with a loan for $100 million. That allowed Trump to extract about $68 million in cash. The same institution that handled the refinancing, Ladder Capital, refinanced 40 Wall Street and the Columbus Circle property a few years later.

Occupancy, along with cash flow, is a factor used by lenders and ratings agencies to assess the riskiness of a loan. Trump secured relatively favorable terms: an interest-only loan that allowed him to avoid paying monthly principal. The Trump Tower loan received coveted AAA and Aaa ratings, respectively, from credit agencies Fitch and Moody’s. (The company has continued making payments.)

When it comes to reporting property taxes in New York City, there’s a potential incentive for owners to minimize how much space they’re renting to themselves. The city’s Tax Commission, which handles property tax appeals, tends to treat owner-occupied space as if it’s being rented at full market price, which increases the value the tax commission assigns to the building, and thus increases the tax bill. But the commission often won’t assign such income to vacant space, said Mancuso, the New York property tax expert.

The Trump Tower filings showed smaller discrepancies when it came to income. (New York City assessors consider income when calculating the taxable value of commercial properties, making New York property tax filings resemble those of income taxes more than property tax filings typically do in other parts of the country.)

Trump Tower, however, fell shy of expectations for profit set out by underwriters working for Ladder Capital during the refinancing, tax and loan records show. They had pegged net operating income at roughly $20.4 million a year. In the years after the loan was made, the building hasn’t come close.

New York City real estate observers have suggested that the tight security needed at the tower because of the presidency has cut into Trump’s ability to make money from the building. This year, China’s biggest bank, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, made plans to reduce its space in Trump Tower when its lease ran out, according to Bloomberg News.

The financial institution that arranged the Trump Tower refinancing, Ladder Capital, is a publicly traded real estate investment trust that reports more than $6 billion in assets. It has a close Trump connection: Jack Weisselberg, an executive in loan origination, is the son of the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. Allen Weisselberg is under investigation by the Manhattan DA for his role in the Daniels payments.

Ladder Capital declined to comment.

‘Versions Of Fraud’: New Documents Show How Trump Evaded Property Taxes

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Documents obtained by ProPublica show stark differences in how Donald Trump’s businesses reported some expenses, profits and occupancy figures for two Manhattan buildings, giving a lender different figures than they provided to New York City tax authorities. The discrepancies made the buildings appear more profitable to the lender — and less profitable to the officials who set the buildings’ property tax.

For instance, Trump told the lender that he took in twice as much rent from one building as he reported to tax authorities during the same year, 2017. He also gave conflicting occupancy figures for one of his signature skyscrapers, located at 40 Wall Street.

Lenders like to see a rising occupancy level as a sign of what they call “leasing momentum.” Sure enough, the company told a lender that 40 Wall Street had been 58.9% leased on Dec. 31, 2012, and then rose to 95% a few years later. The company told tax officials the building was 81% rented as of Jan. 5, 2013.

A dozen real estate professionals told ProPublica they saw no clear explanation for multiple inconsistencies in the documents. The discrepancies are “versions of fraud,” said Nancy Wallace, a professor of finance and real estate at the Haas School of Business at the University of California-Berkeley. “This kind of stuff is not OK.”

New York City’s property tax forms state that the person signing them “affirms the truth of the statements made” and that “false filings are subject to all applicable civil and criminal penalties.”

The punishments for lying to tax officials, or to lenders, can be significant, ranging from fines to criminal fraud charges. Two former Trump associates, Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort, are serving prison time for offenses that include falsifying tax and bank records, some of them related to real estate.

“Certainly, if I were sitting in a prosecutor’s office, I would want to ask a lot more questions,” said Anne Milgram, a former attorney general for New Jersey who is now a professor at New York University School of Law.

Trump has previously been accused of manipulating numbers on his tax and loan documents, including by his former lawyer, Cohen. But Trump’s business is notoriously opaque, with records rarely surfacing, and up till now there’s been little documentary evidence supporting those claims.

That’s one reason that multiple governmental entities, including two congressional committees and the office of the Manhattan district attorney, have subpoenaed Donald Trump’s tax returns. Trump has resisted, taking his battles to federal courts in Washington and New York. And so the question of whether different parts of the government can see the president’s financial information is now playing out in two appeals courts and seems destined to make it to the U.S. Supreme Court. Add to that a Washington Post account of an IRS whistleblower claiming political interference in the handling of the president’s audit, and the result is what amounts to frenetic interest in one person’s tax returns.

ProPublica obtained the property tax documents using New York’s Freedom of Information Law. The documents were public because Trump appealed his property tax bill for the buildings every year for nine years in a row, the extent of the available records. We compared the tax records with loan records that became public when Trump’s lender, Ladder Capital, sold the debt on his properties as part of mortgage-backed securities.

ProPublica reviewed records for four properties: 40 Wall Street, the Trump International Hotel and Tower, 1290 Avenue of the Americas and Trump Tower. Discrepancies involving two of them — 40 Wall Street and the Trump International Hotel and Tower — stood out.

There can be legitimate reasons for numbers to diverge between tax and loan documents, the experts noted, but some of the gaps seemed to have no reasonable justification. “It really feels like there’s two sets of books — it feels like a set of books for the tax guy and a set for the lender,” said Kevin Riordan, a financing expert and real estate professor at Montclair State University who reviewed the records. “It’s hard to argue numbers. That’s black and white.”

The Trump Organization did not respond on the record to detailed questions provided by ProPublica. Robert Pollack, a lawyer whose firm, Marcus & Pollack, handles Trump’s property tax appeal filings with the city, said he was not authorized to discuss the documents. A spokeswoman for Mazars USA, the accounting firm that signed off on the two properties’ expense and income statements, said the firm does not comment on its work for clients. Executives with Trump’s lender, Ladder Capital, declined to be quoted for the story.

In response to ProPublica’s questions about the disparities, Laura Feyer, deputy press secretary for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, said of the Trump International Hotel and Tower, “The city is looking into this property, and if there has been any underreporting, we will take appropriate action.”

Taxes have long been a third rail for Trump. Long before he famously declined to make his personal returns public, a New York Times investigation concluded, Trump participated in tax schemes that involved “outright fraud,” and that he had formulated “a strategy to undervalue his parents’ real estate holdings by hundreds of millions of dollars on tax returns.” Trump’s former partners in Panama claimed in a lawsuit, which is ongoing, that Trump’s hotel management company failed to pay taxes on millions in fees it received. Spokespeople for Trump and his company have denied any tax improprieties in the past.

In February, Cohen told Congress that Trump had adjusted figures up or down, as necessary, to obtain loans and avoid taxes. “It was my experience that Mr. Trump inflated his total assets when it served his purposes,” Cohen testified, “and deflated his assets to reduce his real estate taxes.”

The two Trump buildings with the most notable discrepancies shared a financial trait: Both were refinanced in 2015 and 2016 while Trump was campaigning for president. The loan for 40 Wall Street — $160 million — was then the Trump Organization’s biggest debt.

The fortunes of 40 Wall Street have risen and fallen repeatedly since it was constructed in 1930. Once briefly in the running to become the world’s tallest skyscraper (before being eclipsed by the Chrysler Building and then others), the 71-story landmark had an illustrious history before falling into disrepair as it changed hands multiple times.

Trump says in his book Never Give Up that he took over 40 Wall Street for $1 million during a down market in 1995. Others have reported the price as $10 million. Trump gave the property his signature treatment, decking out the lobby in Italian marble and bronze and christening it “The Trump Building.” Tenants such as American Express moved in.

But the rent rolls suffered when big-name tenants fled to Midtown in the years after the Sept. 11 attacks. Less blue-chip operations replaced them. In recent years, there were more setbacks. About two years ago, for example, high-end food purveyor Dean & DeLuca canceled plans to locate an 18,500-square-foot emporium on the higher-priced first floor. The space remains empty.

The building at 40 Wall was underperforming, charging below-market rents, according to credit-rating agency Moody’s. Its profits were lagging.

Trump’s company, which has sometimes struggled to obtain credit because of his history of bankruptcies and defaults, turned for relief to a financial institution where Donald Trump had a connection: Ladder Capital, which employs Jack Weisselberg, the son of the Trump Organization’s longtime CFO, Allen Weisselberg. Ladder is a publicly traded commercial real estate investment trust that reports more than $6 billion in assets. In 2015, and still today, Jack Weisselberg was an executive director whose job was to make loans.

Trump and Jack Weisselberg had history together. Jack was at UBS, in its loan origination department, in 2006, when the Swiss bank loaned Trump $7 million for his piece of the Trump International Hotel and Tower. Allen Weisselberg had bought a condo from Trump in one of his buildings for a below-market price of $152,500 in 2000. He deeded it to Jack three years later for about $148,000. Jack sold the unit for more than three times as much in 2006. (Jack Weisselberg declined to comment on Ladder’s loans or his relationship with the Trump Organization.)

Even with a sympathetic lender, the struggles at 40 Wall Street would normally raise questions. Trump’s representatives needed to demonstrate signs of the building’s financial health if they wanted a new loan with a lower interest rate.

They had a compelling piece of data, it seemed. Trump’s team told Ladder that occupancy was rebounding after registering a lackluster 58.9% on Dec. 31, 2012. Since then, Trump representatives reported, the building had signed new tenants. Income from them hadn’t fully been realized yet, largely because of free-rent deals, they said. But after 2015, they predicted, revenues would surge.

“That’s a selling point for people in the business,” said Riordan, who was previously the executive director of the Rutgers Center for Real Estate. Borrowers “want to show tremendous leasing momentum.” The steepness of such a rise in occupancy at the Trump building was unusual, Riordan and other experts said.

Documents submitted to city property tax officials show no such run-up. Trump representatives reported to the tax authorities that the building was already 81% leased in 2012.

“What is bizarre is that you have these tax filings that are totally different,” Riordan said. A gap of at least 10 percentage points between the two occupancy reports persisted for the next two years, before the figures in the tax and loan reports synced in January 2016.

The portrayal of a rapid rise in occupancy, and the explanation that income would soon follow, were critical for the refinancing. Indeed, Ladder’s underwriters were predicting that 40 Wall Street’s profits would more than double after 2015. Having reviewed Trump’s financial statements and rent roll, they estimated the building would clear $22.6 million a year in net operating income.

Ladder needed credit ratings agencies like Moody’s and Fitch to endorse its income expectations and give the loan a favorable rating, which would in turn make it easier for the next step of the plan: to package the loan as part of a bond, a so-called commercial mortgage-backed security, and sell it to investors. Without the expected rise in income, Riordan said, the loan size or terms would likely have needed to be renegotiated to satisfy the ratings agencies and investors, which would mean less favorable terms for Trump and Ladder. “There was a story crafted here,” Riordan said. “It’s contradicted by what we see in the tax filings.”

Wallace, the University of California professor, added: “Especially in underwriting loans, you are supposed to truthfully report.” Both the lender and the borrower are required to supply accurate information, she said.

Moody’s and Fitch analysts found the underwriter’s projections slightly too rosy, but Fitch conferred an investment-grade rating on the loan, allowing it to proceed as planned. Trump ultimately received a 10-year loan with a lower interest rate than the building previously had as well as terms that would allow him to defer paying off much of the principal until the end of the loan.

Once granted, the loan to 40 Wall Street ran into trouble: The year after it went through, the loan servicer put it on a “watch list” because of concerns that the building wasn’t making sufficient profit to pay the debt service with enough of a margin. It stayed on the list for three months. (Trump’s company has continued making payments.)

As of 2018, the most recent year available, the building had never met the underwriters’ profit expectations, trailing by more than 8%, according to data from commercial real estate research service Trepp. Experts say that, given the amount of research underwriters do, a property typically meets their expectations fairly quickly.

The 40 Wall Street documents contain discrepancies related to costs as well as to occupancy. Generally, there are “more opportunities to play games on the expense side,” said Ron Shapiro, an assistant professor at Rutgers Business School and a former bank senior vice president, “particularly because there are many more kinds of expenses.”

Comparing specific expense items in both sets of records is challenging, because accountants may group categories differently in reports to tax and loan officials. But some differences on 40 Wall Street documents elicit head-scratching.

For example, insurance costs in 2017 were listed as $744,521 in tax documents and $457,414 in loan records.

Then there was the underlying lease. Trump technically doesn’t own 40 Wall Street. He pays the wealthy German family that owns the property for the right to rent the building to tenants. In 2015, both Trump’s report to tax authorities and a key loan disclosure document asserted that Trump’s company paid $1.65 million for these rights that year. But a line-by-line income and expense statement, which Trepp gathered from what the company reported to the loan servicer, reported the company paid about $1.24 million that year.

“I don’t know why that would be off,” said Jason Hoffman, who is chair of the real estate committee for a professional association of certified public accountants in New York state. Like other experts, he said there are legitimate reasons why tax and loan filings might not line up perfectly. But Hoffman said the firm where he works makes sure the numbers match when it prepares both tax and loan documents for a client — or that it can explain why if they don’t.

Financial information for the Trump International Hotel and Tower raises similar questions. Trump owns only a small portion of the building, which is located on Columbus Circle: two commercial spaces, which he rents out to a restaurant and a parking garage. Trump’s company told New York City tax officials it made about $822,000 renting space to commercial tenants there in 2017, records show. The company told loan officials it took in $1.67 million that year — more than twice as much. In eight years of data ProPublica examined for the Columbus Circle property, Trump’s company reported gross income to tax authorities that was typically only about 81% of what it reported to the lender.

Trump appeared to omit from tax documents income his company received from leasing space on the roof for television antennas, a ProPublica review found. The line on tax appeal forms for income from such communications equipment is blank on nine years of tax filings, even as loan documents listed the antennas as major sources of income.

Trump has an easement to lease the roof space; he doesn’t own it. But three tax experts, including Melanie Brock, an appraiser and paralegal who has worked on hundreds of New York City tax cases, told ProPublica that the income should still be reported on the tax appeals forms.

It’s hard to guess what might explain every inconsistency, said David Wilkes, a New York City tax lawyer who is chair of the National Association of Property Tax Attorneys. But, he added, “My gut reaction is it seems like there’s something amiss there.”

Tax records for Trump personally and for his business continue to be subjects of contention in multiple investigations. The Justice Department has intervened in the investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, whose office has sought Trump’s personal tax returns. Congressional lawmakers investigating his business dealings have sought documents from his longtime accountant, Donald Bender, a partner at Mazars. Trump is fighting the subpoenas in court. (Bender did not respond to requests for comment.)

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, has said the committee is seeking to determine if Cohen’s testimony about Trump inflating and deflating his assets was accurate. Cummings asked for Mazars’ records related to Trump entities, as well as communications between Bender and Trump or Trump employees since 2009.

Such communications, the subpoena stated, should include any related to potential concerns that information Trump or his representatives provided his accountants was “incomplete, inaccurate, or otherwise unsatisfactory.”

IMAGE:  Donald Trump waves to supporters outside the front door of Trump Tower in New York, October 8, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar