After more than a year of delays, a team of attorneys will finally make a trip to Los Angeles next month to review highly guarded, never-before-seen outtakes of Celebrity Apprentice—seeking any evidence that the Trump family knew they were suckering people into investing in a scam.
On Tuesday, a federal judge in New York City ordered that the movie studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer make the footage available at a secure location, potentially ending a long-running battle that’s still draped in secrecy.
MGM won’t say what’s in the tapes or why it could be so damaging to make public. It’s not even clear why the movie studio is fighting so hard to keep unaired footage of Trump’s old show under wraps. And in court filings made last week, the Beverly Hills studio would only describe what’s in the tapes in a document that remains sealed from public view.
But lawyers for four scorned entrepreneurs know what they’re looking for: anything that shows Donald Trump and his kids knew that they were duping would-be investors by leading them to ACN, a multi-level marketing company based in North Carolina.
Trump and his kids—Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric—were the top recurring characters of The Apprentice, playing the role of business judges. During the show, the family featured ACN as a promising investment, even having celebrities compete to produce a commercial for the company’s supposedly high-tech new video chatting phone, the “Iris 5000.” In reality, the tech was a dud and the company was facing financial turmoil—but viewers weren’t told that.
The lawsuit was filed in 2018 by four entrepreneurs who say they were suckered into joining ACN’s multi-level marketing scheme—and lost time and money doing it—as a result of the Trumps’ endorsements. Lynn Chadwick of Pennsylvania says she was duped into the program in 2013, while Catherine McKoy and Millard Williams of California started in 2014. Markus Frazier of Maryland says he signed up in 2016. None of them stuck around past year two.
Reviewing the footage could take weeks, even if they’re only outtakes from two episodes of Celebrity Apprentice that aired in the spring of 2011. In those episodes, opposing teams led by rapper Lil John and television personality “NeNe” Leakes competed to produce ridiculous commercials for ACN’s new video phone.
In her order on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lorna G. Schofield wrote that attorneys representing these entrepreneurs “shall review the requested footage onsite” and be able to copy relevant clips.
The case is set for a jury trial, so if the legal fight makes it that far, the public might get to see the video as well.
Roberta A. Kaplan, whose firm represents the entrepreneurs, declined to speak about the case. Lawyers for MGM, ACN, and the Trump family did not respond to requests for comment.
The entrepreneurs sued the Trump Corporation and the family members that starred on the NBC show—the Donald, Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric—claiming that they were presenting ACN as a decent investment without revealing that they were secretly getting paid millions to do so. The New York Times, citing Trump tax returns reporters there had managed to obtain, would later reveal that the multi-level marketing company had paid him $8.8 million over 10 years.
“Trump repeatedly misrepresented ACN’s risk profile to consumers, falsely claiming that investing in ACN was a low-risk entrepreneurial venture,” the lawsuit states. “Trump repeatedly told his audiences that he endorsed ACN because he believed it offered a reasonable probability of commercial success. He touted ACN’s commercial prospects and his regard for its founders. And he failed to disclose that he was, in fact, being paid millions of dollars for his ACN endorsement.”
But the legal fight inevitably involved the entities with the actual evidence: MGM and JMBP, which stands for J. Mark Burnett Productions. Burnett, the British producer behind The Apprentice and a long-time Trump ally, is now the chairman of MGM’s Worldwide Television Group.
The lawsuit, originally filed in October 2018, has dragged on for years because it has met stiff resistance every step of the way. At first, the family tried to pull the case out of federal court and into closed-door arbitration proceedings. That failed when Judge Schofield and an appellate court ruled against that.
Then in April 2020, when the judge told MGM to hand over the tapes, any effort to review the taps went sideways with COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. MGM refused to let the entrepreneurs’ lawyers watch the footage remotely, and the attorneys wouldn’t risk getting sick by taking the six-hour flight from New York City to Los Angeles and being crammed into video-screening rooms. That disagreement was finally resolved by Tuesday’s judicial order.
The complaint was also initially filed by entrepreneurs using pseudonyms, but in August the judge ordered them to refile their lawsuit using their real names.
The amended version of the lawsuit describes how McKoy, for example, only realized ACN was a scam during her second year with the company. She remembers bringing recruits to company meetings for more than a year and had only made $38, she claims.
“She realized that she had been scammed. Trump was selling a dream to people like her—people who were struggling financially, were really desperate, and would leap at a promise of the kind of success Trump embodied,” the lawsuit says.
Expect a slow burn. The judge has scheduled a trial sometime after March 2023.