NEW YORK — Donald Trump could potentially have his real estate empire ordered “dissolved” for repeated misrepresentations on financial statements to lenders in violation of New York’s powerful anti-fraud law.
But an Associated Press analysis of nearly 70 years of similar cases showed Trump’s case stands apart: It’s the only big business found that was threatened with a shutdown without a showing of obvious victims and major losses.
Some legal experts worry if the New York judge goes ahead with such a penalty in a final ruling expected by the end of this month, it could make it easier for courts to wipe out companies in the future.
“This sets a horrible precedent,” said Adam Leitman Bailey, a New York real estate lawyer who once sued a Trump condo building.
Here is what the AP analysis found:
A finding of fraud under the New York’s statute, known as Executive Law 63(12), does not require any misrepresentations or flat-out lies result in anyone getting duped or losing money. But AP’s review of nearly 150 cases reported in legal databases found that in the dozen cases calling for “dissolution,” victims and losses were key factors.
The AP review turned up a breast cancer nonprofit shut down a dozen years ago for using nearly all its $9 million in donations to pay for director salaries, perks and other expenses instead of funding free mammograms, research and help for survivors as promised.
A private equity firm faking big investment success was closed down after stealing millions of dollars from thousands of investors.
And a mental health facility was shuttered for looting $4 million from public funds while neglecting patients.
Other businesses shut down included a phony psychologist who sold dubious treatments, a fake lawyer who sold false claims he could get students into law school, and businessmen who marketed financial advice but instead swindled people out of their home deeds.
There may be more dissolved companies than AP found. Legal experts caution that some 63(12) cases never show up in legal databases because they were settled, dropped or otherwise not reported.
Still, the only case the AP found of a business dissolved under the anti-fraud law without citing actual victims or losses was a relatively small company closed in 1972 for writing term papers for college students. In that case, the attorney general said the victim was the “integrity of the educational process.”
New York Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron ruled last year that Trump had committed fraud in sending 11 years of allegedly inflated estimates of his net worth to Deutsche Bank and others. The New York attorney general who filed the lawsuit, Letitia James, said that helped the ex-president receive lower interest rates.
Among Trump’s many false claims that allegedly ripped off the bank: His penthouse apartment was stated three times larger than its actual size.
But if the fraud is obvious, the impact is not.
Banks and others have not complained, and it’s unclear how much they lost, if anything.
“This is a basically a death penalty for a business,” said Columbia University law professor Eric Talley about Trump possibly getting shut down. “Is he getting his just desserts because of the fraud, or because people don’t like him?”
The judge’s ruling last year calling for a “dissolution” is under appeal.
James called to the stand a lending expert who estimated that Deutsche Bank gave up $168 million in extra interest on its Trump loans, basing his calculations as if Trump never offered a personal guarantee.
But Trump did offer a guarantee, even if his estimate of his personal wealth was exaggerated.
In fact, the bank made its own estimates of Trump’s personal wealth, at times lopping billions from Trump’s figures, and still decided to lend to him. And bank officials called to testify couldn’t say for sure if Trump’s personal statement of worth had any impact on the rates.
The judge said last year that state certificates needed to run many of Trump’s New York companies should be revoked and the companies turned over to a receiver who will manage the “dissolution” of them.
What the judge left unclear is what he meant by “dissolution,” whether that referred to the liquidation of companies that control properties or the properties themselves.
In a worst case, as interpreted by legal experts, Engoron could decide dissolution means stripping the real estate mogul of not only of his New York holdings such as Trump Tower and his 40 Wall Street skyscraper, but his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida, a Chicago hotel and other properties.
Notably, attorney general James never asked for a dissolution and sale.
Instead. she has recommended that Trump be banned from doing business in New York and pay $370 million, what she estimates is saved interest and other “ill-gotten gains.”
One solution: Delay.
In a footnote in a 94-page summary document filed earlier this month, James suggested the judge appoint an independent monitor to oversee Trump’s operations for five years, after which the court could decide whether to revoke his business certificates and possibly put him out of business.
University of Michigan law professor William Thomas says he is worried the order might stick.
“Those who want to see Donald Trump suffer by any means necessary,” he said, “risk ignoring the very commitment to a rule of law that they accuse him of flouting.”