New York Attorney General Letitia James filed a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump, three of his adult children, and other senior members of the Trump Organization on Wednesday. Her suit alleges business and insurance fraud as well as conspiracy for the same, and marks the end of a three-year investigation into Trump and his business.
The civil suit is basically a civil version of the criminal indictments the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and the Manhattan and New York State attorneys general have failed to generate at the federal and state levels. The suit claims in a nutshell what the criminal cases claimed: Trump over-valued the worth of his properties to use them as collateral for new loans, and then undervalued those same properties come tax time to pay lower taxes.
The criminal cases have fallen flat because of the need to prove actual criminal intent, that Trump lied intending to commit a crime. This proved impossible when the Trump family would not confess (Trump himself took the Fifth some 440 times during recent questioning) and when no one could be found to Fredo him by turning in evidence in return for some lower sentence. What’s left in what has clearly become a prosecution driven by the political need to do something ahead of 2024 is this civil suit. Basically, same accusations, same weak evidence, but lower standards of proof with lower penalties.
Enemies of Trump hope this works out better than previous attempts to prosecute him by the Southern District of New York (SDNY) and failing that the New York State attorney general Letitia James. The former also failed in 2012 to indict Trump’s children after they were accused of misleading investors, and faced judicial rebukes in the past for sloppy work and political motivations.
The narrative runs like this: both offices had been compiling nasty stuff against Trump for years, held back only by custom which prevented them from indicting him for as long as he was the president. As of January 20, 2021, he became open game. But since then both offices have failed to indict Trump. The New York state system is no kangaroo court, and affords defendants far more protections than federal courts. There are strict rules governing evidence that can be presented to a grand jury, and even minor procedural errors can result in indictments being thrown out. “If you’re a white-collar defendant, you’d rather be in New York State court than in federal court any day of the week,” said SDNY’s former top deputy.
The current try is kind of pathetic. It’s just a lawsuit, which carries no potential criminal jeopardy, so no formal indictment, no possibility of jail time. The suit holds that Trump mis-valued some New York real estate between 2011 and 2021 to obtain loans and pay lower taxes, a civil offense at worst usually settled with new assessments or a fine.
Yet even this case against Trump could be difficult to prove. Property valuations are subjective, and most financial statements include a disclaimer stating that they have not been audited. Now underline this part: Deutsche Bank and Trump’s other lenders were hardly victims; all of his loans are either current or were paid off, some early. Trump does not use email, so any instructions he might have given his employees about the company’s financial statements are unlikely to be in writing. The lack of a damning email, or a witness inside his company willing to testify against him, will complicate efforts to show he intentionally used his financial statements to defraud lenders and insurers.
For people not named Trump (a key giveaway that this is all political), the city of New York assesses a value to each property for tax purposes. Nearly every property owner in NYC believes his or her assessed value is too high and pushes back, to the point where these disputes are not even handled by a court but through a tax commission grievance process. Owners want a lower value to pay less tax, except when they approach a bank for the equivalent of a refi loan, when they want their property to seem more expensive to secure a bigger loan at a better rate. It is the bank that then decides what a property is worth to them as collateral, via their own due diligence.
It’s always complicated, as much art as science. Beyond the usual valuation factors of location, location, location, some buildings in New York are iconic, or famous for their brand name (cough, cough, “Trump”), what history they represent, etc. Some just have nice views. Sometimes the bank is generous because in return for the loan they’ll secure some other business of value to them.
Over-valuing/under-valuing real estate in New York City is sport, but as a crime is so much not ado about nothing it is not going to send anyone to jail. Imagine the yawns as a jury listens to forensic accountants explain Trump’s tiered exemptions and how their value is subtracted from the DOF assessed value to calculate a taxable value which is then multiplied by the current tax rate for the specific assigned property class. Next session they’ll talk about somewhat sketchy easements Trump obtained going back to when Mayor Koch was in charge in the 1980s.
The jury will quickly discover the regulations governing how one values a New York property are dense. Built into the law is an automatic fudge allowing the same property to have both a high market value and a lower asset value. Problems are sorted out as civil matters and usually settled with the city sending out a bill, especially if the bank is not claiming fraud, only the DA, as in Trump’s case.
And in the end, what? The lawsuit seeks to permanently bar the Trump family members named from serving in officer or director positions in any corporation in New York State. The attorney general also seeks to bar the former president and the Trump Organization from entering into any New York real estate acquisitions for five years, and to take back all financial benefits obtained through the allegedly fraudulent practices, estimated to total $250 million.
None of those things, even if the suit if fully successful, is likely to have an effect on Candidate Trump, and none would prevent him from running for president. Trump merely needs to re-incorporate in another state, maybe business-friendly Florida, to restart operations.
The Democrats’ plan to find Trump guilty of something, anything, seems to be coming to its own sad ending. They have tried to turn belief that Trump is evil into a crime — Emoluments Clause, Russiagate, impeachments I and II, Stormy Daniels, obstruction of justice, and incitement.
On the sidelines were extra-judicial attempts connected to the 25th Amendment, having doctors who never examined the man declaring Trump mentally ill, and even accusations of incest. The Southern District of New York previously failed to indict Trump’s children and failed to prosecute Paul Manafort. E. Jean Carroll’s rape-cum-defamation case is so egregiously lousy that even the Biden DOJ took Trump’s side. The convictions of Trump associates lawyer Michael Cohen and accountant Allen Weisselberg did not touch the principal himself.
The SDNY brought no charges. Early this year, the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, instructed prosecutors to halt their effort to seek an indictment of Trump. It looks like Letitia James is the only one left. She can turn off the lights on her way out.