New York Wants a Court To Declare Trump Liable for Fraud — Without the Nicety of a Trial

The attorney general asks for summary judgment in the state’s civil case, even as she alleges that she has thus far disclosed only the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of the former president’s alleged fraud.

AP/Seth Wenig, file
Attorney General Letitia James at New York on December 14, 2021. AP/Seth Wenig, file

Attorney General Letitia James’s move for summary judgment in New York’s fraud case against President Trump, his family, and the Trump Organization could soon end a New York real estate story that has stretched between Queens and the White House.

Even as Mr. Trump is besieged by four criminal indictments that threaten his liberty, the civil suit from Ms. James could land a financial blow that could further throw his presidential bid into chaos. His trial in the civil suit is set to begin in October, though if Ms. James has her way, the former president’s culpability would be largely locked in before a jury of his fellow New Yorkers even convenes. 

Ms. James has asked for a penalty of $250 million and a ban on Mr. Trump doing business in the Empire State. She alleges that “Donald Trump falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system,” reaping “incredible financial benefits” in the process.” 

Unclear, at least from the documents filed so far, is who was harmed by the alleged tort violations. Ms. James has alleged that the taxpayer suffered, but Mr. Trump maintains that haggling over valuations is part of the real estate modus operandi.

Now, the attorney general does not want to wait for the leaves to turn for Mr. Trump to be found liable. A counsel for her office, Andrew Amer, writes in a “memorandum of law” requesting summary judgment that “at the end of the day this is a documents case, and the documents leave no shred of doubt that Mr. Trump’s (statements of financial condition) do not even remotely reflect” their worth.

Ms. James argues that Mr. Trump “falsely inflated by billions of dollars the value” of his assets, in the process “reaping hundreds of millions of dollars in ill-gotten savings and profits.” She reckons that the “mountain of undisputed evidence” in the case means that the “predicate facts” to find Mr. Trump guilty of fraud “are beyond dispute.” 

The prosecutor tells the presiding judge, Arthur Engoron, that “no trial is required for the Court to determine that Defendants presented grossly and materially inflated asset values.” The evidence uncovered thus far — with trial months away — is, Mrs. James asserts, just the “tip of a much larger iceberg of deception” that would, if further disclosed, carve “off billions more from Mr. Trump’s net worth.” 

The prosecutor alleges that the former president exaggerated the value of his triplex apartment at Trump Tower “by approximately $100-$200 million each year from 2012 to 2016.” She adds that he valued Mar-a-Lago at between $347 million and $739 million despite Palm Beach County reckoning its worth as between $18 million and $27.6 million.

The request for summary judgment is only partial, meaning that it aims to truncate a trial, not short-circuit it altogether. In a footnote, Ms. James mentions “the People’s claims for relief in the form of disgorgement, bans, and other equitable remedies.”

In her complaint, Ms. James requests that “Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization be prohibited from entering into any New York State commercial real estate acquisitions for a period of five years.” She also seeks a ruling “banning” Mr. Trump and two of his sons, Don Jr. and Eric, “from serving as an officer or director in any New York corporation or similar business entity registered and/or licensed in New York State.” 

One of Ms. James’s requests, for an independent monitor to oversee the affairs of the Trump Organization pending the resolution of the case, has already been granted, after Judge Engoron explained that appointing an outside monitor “is the most prudent and narrowly tailored mechanism to ensure there is no further fraud or illegality.” 

This appeal to equity — a descendant of ancient English courts, which possessed the power to not only render a judgment but compel performance — underscores that Ms. James is hoping for a body blow rather than a slap on the wrist. When running for office, she promised, “I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president,” referring to Mr. Trump. She also promised to shine a “bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings.” 

Mr. Trump has responded by seeking his own species of summary judgment — that the suit against him be dismissed out of hand. He argues that the valuations in question, which begin in 2011, predate the relevant statutes of limitations. During his deposition in this case, he called his portfolio the “the ‘Mona Lisa’ of properties.”      


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