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Trump has thrived with government's generosity

The potential presidential candidate and opponent of big government has relied on tax breaks and federal funding to build his real estate empire.

May 11, 2011|By Geraldine Baum, Tom Hamburger and Michael J. Mishak, Los Angeles Times

In his 1987 memoir "Trump: The Art of the Deal," Trump harped on municipal ineptitude, and described tricking the city into thinking he had an exclusive option on the property from the owner. "A city official had requested that I send along a copy of my option agreement with Penn Central," he wrote. "I did — but it was signed only by me, and not the railroad, because I had yet to put down my $250,000."

That revelation came shortly before Trump and his partners shortchanged the public coffers, according to the city audit. Trump asked his accountants in 1987 to retroactively change the Grand Hyatt's accounting policy to lower its tax bill, according to an accountant's letter uncovered in the audit.

When tax receipts from the Grand Hyatt plummeted to $667,000 from $3.7 million the year before, the city budget director asked Auditor General Burstein to review the hotel's financial records. Burstein said the Grand Hyatt, through "aberrant" accounting practices, had understated its profits by $5 million and shorted the city by $2,870,259 in taxes.

"The people who didn't get the foregone taxes were the police, the schools and public hospitals of this city," she said, adding that "Trump leveraged tax forgiveness and clout into a deal where he had essentially no risk at all; there was no downside. Then, having triumphed, he repaid his benefactors by excoriating them as inept, venal and useless."

Although Trump pressured her to kill the audit, Burstein said, she insisted on publishing it. Immediately after it was released, the top city attorney began proceedings to recoup the money from Trump and his partners.

Trump said this week he did not recall Burstein's investigation. "I remember nothing about her reports or her statements," he said, insisting that developing the Grand Hyatt was a "great service to the city" because at the time, the area around Grand Central Station was "absolutely in shambles."

"I really made that area," he said.

Trump offered a similar argument when he sought to build apartments on an abandoned railroad yard along the Hudson River. To make the 5,000-plus-unit development attractive, Trump proposed a riverfront park and asked the federal government to pay $200 million to sink an elevated section of the West Side Highway underground for several blocks. The cost seemed staggering to Congressman Nadler, in part because just three years earlier the highway had undergone a $72-million renovation.

"It's a sin against taxpayers," Nadler said at the time.

But Trump pressed on, urging Congress to appropriate funds for a highway tunnel. When Nadler opposed the request, Trump secured an earmark for the project through another member of Congress, Sue Kelly, a Republican from north of the city who, like Nadler, had received campaign contributions from Trump.

Nadler took the unusual step of urging fellow legislators to turn down millions of dollars in federal funds for a project in his own district. Trump also sought access to a federal program that would have guaranteed a $356-million low-interest loan in exchange for designating a percentage of the units for lower-income families.

"Trump stretched the definition [of the federal program] beyond the breaking point," Nadler recalled. The use of federal loan guarantees to underwrite what were planned as luxury apartments also drew the ire of GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

Though Nadler and McCain forced cuts in much of the federal support sought by Trump, the project had already been blessed with millions in property tax abatements from state officials.

Trump's aggressive tactics have played out in a somewhat different, but no less profitable, way in other parts of the country.

Trump has fought for lower tax bills in Florida, where he won a reduction in the 1980s for Mar-A-Lago, his 118-room mansion, and in Atlantic City, N.J., where he filed 19 separate petitions seeking a lower tax bill for casinos and other properties. He eventually settled for a $34-million reduction, which local officials said cost millions in improperly reduced tax revenue. But a court ruled that the deal could not be withdrawn.

In Las Vegas, Trump's goal was to lower the taxable value of the recently constructed Trump International Hotel and Tower. His team, which included the former chairman of the county Board of Equalization — the agency that decides tax matters — won a reduction last year in the taxable value from $180 million to $8.6 million.

A few other properties owned by Nevada's best-known developers also received substantial reductions, though Trump's 95% drop appeared to be among the largest.

In his appraisal to the board, former Chairman Timothy Morse noted the region's sour economy, and said Trump's glittering 64-story tower, wrapped in 24-karat-gold infused glass, needed more time "to establish itself within a highly competitive market."

But Nevada economist Bill Robinson said the tax breaks provided to Trump and other developers last year seemed out of line, particularly compared with the reductions provided to average citizens. The dramatic reductions also compounded revenue problems for cash-strapped Clark County.

"Homeowners haven't gotten anything like that kind of a break," Robinson said. "It's not in the public interest for the county to be giving people larger-than-normal tax breaks."

Photos: Trump properties in the news

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Baum reported from New York, Hamburger from Washington and Mishak from Las Vegas.

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