Donald Trump’s desperate attempts to escape the wrath of the New York Attorney General were halted Thursday when a state judge there took the remarkable step of putting the former president’s company under court supervision—and preventing the billionaire from quietly shifting his money to avoid paying millions in fines.
Justice Arthur F. Engoron intervened at the AG’s request, ordering the appointment of an independent monitor to ensure that the company can’t secretly move assets out of the law enforcement agency’s reach or keep issuing fraudulent financial statements.
“There’s going to be a monitor,” he said in a Manhattan courtroom midday Thursday.
The Trump Organization—the real estate company that propelled Trump into international fame—and its family leadership are accused of engaging in a blatant and long-running bank and tax fraud scheme. Documents filed in court meticulously describe how Trump and the adult family members he made executives there—Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric—persistently inflated the size and value of property to snag better bank loans and claim bigger tax breaks. They now face a $250 million lawsuit from New York AG Letitia James which seeks to cripple the corporation.
She hopes to put the Trumps on trial in 2023, just as Trump is expected to pursue his political ambitions in a return to the White House.
Trump has already taken actions that indicate he might be doing exactly what the AG fears: playing corporate games to avoid accountability.
In recent weeks, he opened a new corporation in the shell company capital of Delaware, comically called “Trump Organization II.” And on Wednesday, he filed a state lawsuit in Florida’s Palm Beach County against the AG’s office trying to keep it from ever accessing any funds he shelters in a legal entity known as a “trust.” The lawsuit seeks a judicial order “declaring that James has no jurisdiction over the assets of a Florida revocable trust.”
In court on Thursday, assistant attorney general Kevin Wallace stressed the importance of having Justice Engoron clamp down on the company, citing "ongoing fraudulent activities at the Trump Organization.” He argued that the AG’s office needs to have “general visibility” into the company so that it doesn’t become an empty shell by the time a trial ends—and it potentially has to pay millions in fines.
“It's not appropriate for us to take this matter to trial... and now we're looking for the first time at what a restructured company might look like,” he said.
Meanwhile, Christopher M. Kise, a Florida lawyer representing the Trump Organization, chalked up the entire lawsuit as a “manufactured bill of grievances,” given that the AG was pursuing a claim against the company that was never made by its supposed victims—its major lender and accounting firm, Deutsche Bank and Mazars USA, respectively.
“There is zero public interest here,” Kise said. “The attorney general is representing Deutsche Bank, Mazars... these corporate titans have... some of the best attorneys in the country… they've never complained.”
Kise tried to cast any valuation issues as mere disagreements—the kind of dispute that happens every day in business. But Engoron wasn’t having any of it, zeroing in on just one of Trump’s baldfaced lies.
In his first round of questions, Engoron began by asking if Kise knew the size of the Trump Tower triplex in Manhattan. Kise said no. The judge then turned to the AG’s office lawyers, who explained how building plans show it’s 11,000 square feet—and yet Trump filed documents claiming it was actually three times that size, roughly 30,000 square feet.
“Could that be a good faith disagreement?” Engoron asked.
“It certainly could be,” Kise shot back.
Engoron then highlighted how the Trump Organization benefited handsomely from that lie, having the AG’s office explain how the 20,000 square foot addition of nonexistent space blew up the real estate’s listed value according to the company’s own then-chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
“It led to a variation of what Mr. Weisselberg described as, give or take, $200 million,” Wallace said.
Engoron said that discrepancy "by itself is enough to justify the appointment of a monitor."
At this point, this lawsuit is one of a half dozen legal actions threatening the politically powerful Trump family. Trump himself could be hit with federal criminal charges for keeping classified information at his Florida oceanside estate of Mar-a-Lago, as well as state criminal charges for trying to intimidate a Georgia elections official into reversing his electoral loss there in 2020. Meanwhile, the company is currently defending itself at a criminal trial in Manhattan that accuses it of dodging taxes by showering executives with corporate luxury benefits off the books.
However, the AG’s lawsuit strikes at the heart of Trump’s image—and his wallet. James is attempting to kill the company by bleeding it dry. She’s seeking to hit it with a quarter billion dollars in fines and prohibit the company from operating in New York or raising money in what has become the financial capital of the world.
In court papers, the Trump Organization decried the lawsuit as a blatant campaign to “generate extensive press coverage on the eve of an election,” calling the attempts to exert control over Trump’s real estate empire a “politically motivated attempt to nationalize a highly successful private enterprise.”
Since the lawsuit was filed, the Trumps have scrambled to limit the potential damage by trying to get Justice Engoron kicked off the case. They’ve argued the case should be in New York state court’s commercial division rather than with Engoron, who typically presides over civil matters.
However, Engoron has refused to budge, saying he is best prepared to judge these issues given that he’s already intimately familiar with the AG’s investigation of the Trump Organization that led to the lawsuit. The Trumps spent three years trying to dodge deposition interviews with investigators and refusing to turn over documents, and it was Engoron who repeatedly had to issue court orders forcing them to comply with the AG’s subpoenas.
Just yesterday, Engoron issued yet another order rejecting their demands that he step aside, writing that “judicial economy strongly militates keeping this case with this court, which will continue to preside over it ‘without fear or favor.’”