Skift Take

This is only the start of mounting legal issues for the Trump Organization. Prosecutors typically start small with charges as they look for ways to get people to flip and bring down a bigger whale.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s office filed tax fraud-related charges Wednesday night that were made public Thursday afternoon against The Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg, the company’s chief financial officer.

The company was charged with a 15-year scheme enabling executives to avoid taxes by paying them off the books. Weisselberg was indicted on conspiracy, grand larceny, and fraud charges related to allegations of not paying taxes for years on various perks and benefits. Fifteen charges in total were filed between the company and its CFO.

The Trump Organization and Weisselberg pleaded not guilty at an arraignment Thursday afternoon, the Associated Press reports.

The charges against former President Donald Trump’s namesake company — owner of various commercial real estate ventures like hotels, golf clubs, and residential developments — aren’t a surprise. The Trump Organization issued a statement Thursday morning labeling the charges as a political witch hunt using Weisselberg as a “pawn in a scorched earth attempt” to eventually bring down the former president.

But the indictment against the company is a fresh blow to a hospitality brand with 10 hotels and resorts across the U.S. and Scotland struggling after decimated demand from the pandemic and a tanked reputation following the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters.

Revenue at the beginning of the year at company’s Washington, D.C., hotel was down nearly 63 percent from 2019. Trump’s Las Vegas property was down nearly 61 percent. Revenue at the Trump National Doral golf course in Florida was down nearly 43 percent.

One commercial real estate brokerage firm dropped efforts to market the sale of the company’s D.C. hotel in light of the Jan. 6 attack. The Professional Golfers’ Association of America has also said it will no longer hold its PGA Championship at Trump’s New Jersey golf course next year.

That could be only the beginning of the Trump Organization’s woes. Legal experts over the last week noted banks can be wary of doing business with companies facing any type of legal trouble with the government. That’s particularly bad news for a commercial real estate entity known for taking out massive loans to fund the development of soaring hotel towers.

“In the due diligence process, anytime you’re looking at those kinds of loans at that level and size, anything can be flagged to say no to,” said Steve Carvell, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. “Any imprint of legal question is going to have weight in making loan decisions, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to happen with this particular case.”

If there is one thing the Trump Organization can rely on, it’s that there is still a loyal fan base to the former president. The D.C. hotel became a de facto salon of those trying to curry favor with Trump while he occupied the White House. The company at one point even considered plans for a more affordable hotel brand aimed at parts of the country that tended to vote for Trump.

“People will have already decided if they want to boycott Trump properties or not, and this will just further confirm the opinions already held,” Richard Clarke, a managing director covering hotels at Bernstein, told Skift via email Thursday before the charges were unsealed. “For certain clientele, this probably makes it all the more popular.”

A Months-Long Road to an Indictment

Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, informed the Trump Organization in January her office opened an investigation regarding Weisselberg.

That specific investigation stemmed from various tax-free benefits afforded Weisselberg, like tens of thousands of dollars in private school tuition for a grandchild and cars, the New York Times reports. The scope of that investigation is believed to overlap with Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s investigation into Trump, his company, and benefits toward employees beyond Weisselberg.

Thursday’s charges outlined additional tax-free benefits Weisselberg received, including leased Mercedes-Benzes, a rent-free apartment, and bonuses.

Prosecutors are believed to have also investigated whether the company falsified property values to lenders and tax regulators, but that wasn’t included in the indictment this week.

Trump’s attorney told Politico Monday charges weren’t expected this week against the former president, but legal analysts aren’t ruling out the eventual possibility of such charges.

Both the Trump Organization and Weisselberg were charged, and prosecutors in recent months hoped investigating the CFO would pressure him to flip on Trump and testify about how much the former president knew. Prosecutors since grew disenchanted with Weisselberg.

The Manhattan district attorney and New York attorney general’s offices recently began collaborating on their investigations and gave Trump’s attorneys a deadline of Monday afternoon to make final arguments on why charges shouldn’t be filed, the Washington Post first reported. A meeting happened, but those generally serve as a formality before charges are eventually filed.

Trump issued a statement through the Save America political action committee Monday night that culminated in a warning toward other companies in New York:

“Remember, if they can do this to me, they can do it to anyone! … Why would anyone bring their company to New York, or even stay in New York, knowing these Radical Left Democrats would willingly target their company if viewed as a political opponent? … It is a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt of all time.”

[UPDATE]: This story was updated following publication to provide more details on charges against the Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg.

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Tags: Donald Trump, taxes, trump organization

Photo credit: Prosecutors in New York filed charges against the Trump Organization as well as its chief financial officer. Pxhere

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