As President Donald Trump gives his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, nobody at the Fort Dix Correctional Facility in nearby New Jersey will have a more improbable tale to tell than the man now listed as Prisoner 57828-054.
That is the prison number assigned to 76-year-old former tech tycoon Alberto Vilar, who back in 1999 told the world that he was defending the dignity of the United Nations and the character of the neighborhood surrounding its global headquarters by challenging Trump’s plan to overshadow it in the most literal sense by constructing the world’s tallest residential building directly across the street.
In that effort, Vilar spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and enlisted the support of such big shots as billionaire David Koch and film director James Ivory and news icon Walter Cronkite, who said, “This protest is supported by a whole lot more less-than-wealthy folks who are sharply offended by the unnecessary grossness of this project.”
The primary financial backer of the $350 million Trump World Tower was the Daewoo Corporation, the biggest trading company in South Korea. Cronkite wrote a letter to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, noting that the plan to build the tower 300 feet taller than the Secretariat Building would “be an eternal embarrassment to Korea.”
Vilar spoke as if Trump were a vulgarian at the gates.
“To me it is a question of aesthetic outrage,” Vilar said. “My sense of proportion, my sense of aesthetics, my sense of landscape for New York just said this was wrong... Who the hell is Trump to go around changing the landscape of New York?”
Vilar went on: “Whatever it costs I am willing to fund it. I want to be able to say that I had a sense of civic outrage and I contributed.”
Vilar took the battle to court, at considerable expense. Trump marveled at his seeming fanaticism.
“Many people have fought me over the years, but there was something really missing with this guy,” Trump later said.
Trump offered his analysis of what was driving his opponents.
“Rich people don’t like losing their view,” he said. “That is what this is all about.”
Both Vilar and Cronkite lived in a high rise just across East 48th Street. Visitors to Cronkite’s apartment often remarked on the fine view of the Chrysler Building. Vilar stood to lose a fine view of the Empire State Building, but his 30-room apartment would still have views of the UN and of Wall Street. He dismissed Trump’s poison as “absurd.”
“This is not Vilar versus Trump,” he told a reporter, grandly adding, “This is about the private citizens of New York and the protection of zoning rights.”
The state Court of Appeals declined to hear the case. The 801-foot Trump World Tower opened in 2001 and was the tallest residential structure in the world until it was topped by a tower in Dubai three years later, which was topped by one in Seoul the following year.
The 45th floor of Trump World Tower was purchased by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Those who had apartments in the building came to include Bill Gates, Harrison Ford, Sophia Loren, and a onetime New Jersey Blueberry Princess whose future nobody could have foreseen: Kellyanne Conway.
The soirees at Vilar’s apartment no longer had that wow view of the Empire State Building, but his defeat by the vulgarian did not dim his social prominence as a philanthropist with a particular passion for the arts, most especially opera.
Then Vilar’s failure to make good on a charitable pledge led to questions about this finances. The queries ended with his arrest in 2005 for fraud and money laundering. He went to trial and was convicted in late 2008. He was sentenced to nine years in 2010 and ordered to make restitution to investors he had fleeced by as much as $40 million.
Trump did not shy from offering his opinion of Vilar, whose supposed “aesthetic outrage” had already affirmed the vulgarian’s opinion of the elite.
“He’s a miserable human being and a basic scumbag,” Trump said. “He spent $2 million trying to fight me… He was intractable and foolish and he ended up getting his ass kicked by me.”
Even so, Trump voiced some sympathy after cultural institutions that had once feted Vilar stripped his name off a concert hall he had bankrolled and renamed a fellowship he had endowed. Trump spoke as someone who had generally demonstrated an aversion to charitable giving even in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. He did not seem much bothered that the money Vilar bestowed with great fanfare had been bilked from such innocents as actress Phoebe Cate’s mother, who lost $5 million.
“But he gave millions to charities and they’ve treated him like garbage,” Trump told the press. “I think that’s terrible. The least they could say is thank you.”
In the view of the court, the least Vilar could do was repay his victims. He was sentenced to an additional year in 2014 for actively preventing them from recouping their funds.
As we all know and as many of us still cannot quite believe, Trump is now the president. And on Tuesday he will be giving his first big speech at the United Nations, in the literal shadow of Trump World Tower. He brings with him a deeper shadow of ethical and perhaps legal transgressions whose scale is still being measured by investigators.
The man who fought to keep Trump from building the tallest residential building in the world remains in the biggest prison in the federal system. One question is whether some of Trump’s cronies will end up behind bars with Prisoner 57828-054.