Donald Trump needed some help in 2006. He was setting up Trump Institute, a series of seminars teaching the “way to wealth,” and was looking for expertise on how the conference business worked.
He turned to a pair with a troublesome legal history to give him a hand.
Mike and Irene Milin were known to law enforcement officials in a number of states for a host of get-rich-quick schemes and alleged real estate scams. They were prosecuted by the Texas attorney general for deceptive trade practices, and sued by the makers of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, to name just two of the Milins’ many legal entanglements. But Michael Sexton—then president of Trump University, which he said at the time included the Trump Institute seminars, as well as online courses—partnered with the Milins nonetheless, according to a report from The Sacramento Bee.
The Milins’ oft-investigated National Grants Conferences, in effect, became the blueprint for Trump Institute. The two seminar businesses used some of the same speakers and shared office space in Boca Raton, Florida. The ads for Trump University promised to make people “millionaires,” just as the National Grants Conference commercials told customers they’d make them rich from government money. And, most importantly, Trump Institute operated itself in much the same manner as National Grants Conferences: After a promise of easy riches and a free seminar, customers were cajoled into doling out more and more money to get the key to unlocking wealth.
The problem in both cases: The key never opened anything.
The Milins launched National Grants Conferences in 1998, promising customers lucrative grants from the government, which they could not fulfill. Before that, the couple basically got run out of each state in which they set up a different iteration of the same shady practice. Similarly, Trump Institute promised to make people into savvy real estate investors, thanks to advice from The Donald himself. The customers never met the straw-haired impresario, however. They only got to see a cardboard cutout of his likeness.
NGC went bankrupt just two years after the partnership began, after being dogged by a major complaint from 34 attorneys general across the United States. Trump University would also earn a reputation as a fraud operation and both New York State and former students have brought charges against the Republican frontrunner as a result.
And he’s not shaking those charges anytime soon; Trump may have to testify in court this summer in the civil suit brought by his unhappy students, while he would otherwise be trying to consolidate his grip on the Republican nomination.
The GOP frontrunner has staked his political brand on his commercial acumen. But Trump’s relationship with the Milins calls into question that business judgment, while adding to the stink surrounding Trump University.
It’s unclear why Trump linked up with a pair with such a long history of legal trouble in the first place. While Trump’s current camp denies any and all involvement, the ties between the organizations are clear.
NGC’s audience was the infomercial circuit, running long, flashy ads to entice new customers.
Triumphant horns played over a gold backdrop as words careened in from off screen. “The secrets of how you can get government grants, loans and subsidies,” the grainy title card promised before a nearly six-minute video presented by NGC began. The Milins peered into the camera readying themselves to promise riches to the masses.
It’s one of the only images available online of the couple, who in the near-decade since this was filmed have retreated into quiet seclusion in their Boca Raton home, less than 30 miles from Donald Trump’s Palm Beach palace, Mar-a-Lago.
National Grants Conferences claimed that it could offer customers hundreds of billions of dollars in “free” government grants and loans. Following previous models the Milins developed, the program would provide one free seminar, after which individuals were encouraged to pay $999 for access to this information about grants, which amounted to a series of brochures and counselors who promised to help people get money.
It will not shock you that the operation wasn’t exactly above board.
Grants.gov lays out the criteria for getting this kind of money, which often goes to government organizations and nonprofits. It explicitly warns against “late night infomercials” promising “millions in free money.”
Mike Milin began his career as a salesman in the mid-1980s for the notorious get-rich-quick scheme artist Tony Hoffman, who was famous for wearing dollar sign-shaped rings and driving a brown limousine with a license plate reading “NEGOT8R.”
When Hoffman’s company “National Superstar Inc.” went bankrupt in 1986, Milin and his wife, Irene, began to run their own seminar programs, using an infomercial hosted by Robin Leach of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous to advertise their products.
According to a 1987 article in the Los Angeles Times, the half-hour infomercial called “Two Years to Financial Freedom” gave the appearance that the couple was actually featured on the Leach-hosted show. In fact, Leach was merely hired for the day, along with a rented Rolls-Royce and a jet. The owners of the original program Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous later successfully sued the Milins for copying their brand, forcing the couple to alter the infomercial to keep it on the air.
In the video, Milin claims that he became a banking expert after writing his master’s thesis at the University of California, Berkeley, focusing on banking and sociology. He also alleges that he turned to real estate investing as a result of being laid off as a sociology professor at the university where he taught after graduating. According to the Times article, Berkeley’s office of admissions had no record of Milin attending or teaching at the university. And Kathleen Maclay, of Berkeley’s Media Relations department, told The Daily Beast “we have no student records for a Michael Milin.”
The next move for the scamming couple was a Texas-based company called Information Seminars International, for which they were also sued—this time by the Texas attorney general in 1993—who found them liable for deceptive trade practices. The Milins’ program promised that if customers paid $499 for what they referred to as the “Milin Method,” the company would turn around and help them re-sell real estate at government auctions.
This was basically the same method they would use in their partnership with Trump.
Then-Texas Assistant Attorney General Bruce Griffiths alleged that the couple made $30 million annually off this scheme and that when customers tried to reach anyone associated with the company by phone, no one would pick up.
In a settlement that the couple signed that year, they and their partners were permanently barred from claiming that they had become wealthy from real estate. The Milins also agreed to use full names in any testimonials—though the brochures later distributed by NGC in the mid-2000s did not.
In 2006, the year that Trump joined forces with the now-bankrupt company, the Milins were accused of violating Vermont’s Consumer Fraud Act by William Sorrell, the state attorney general at the time. Sorrell called National Grants Conferences “unconscionable and illegal” in public documents of the allegations reviewed by The Daily Beast. The company was ordered to pay $65,000 in legal fees and an additional nearly $325,000 to customers.
Less than a year later, 34 state attorneys general wrote a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling out the company for “deceptive advertising.” In 2010, then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott took legal action against the company as well, resulting in them being unable to advertise as they had done so in the state.
A source who previously worked with the Milins at NGC confirmed Trump’s involvement with the accused real estate scammers. And a lawyer involved in legal proceedings against the Milins also said the Trump and Milin operations were linked.
The Milins loaned out some of their staffers to actually deliver seminars for Trump Institute, which have been described as live-action real estate infomercials. At the initial free seminars, attendees were allegedly encouraged to pay nearly $1,500 to go to another three-day conference, where Trump was promised to appear and give his personal advice. But if he ever came, evidence of it doesn’t appear to have been reported anywhere publicly.
In two instances cited in a New York lawsuit involving Trump University—the umbrella organization for Trump Institute and other “educational” offerings—individuals said that all they received were cardboard cutouts of Trump, rather than personal visits. They were offered access to the “Gold Elite Program” for the price of $34,995, which was littered with more empty promises.
It is unclear what if any direct contact Trump himself had with the Milins, but according to a 2006 report, NGC and the Trump Institute shared at least three of the same owners and a joint Boca Raton address.
Yet Alan Garten, current executive vice president and general counsel for the Trump Organization, denied a number of times to The Daily Beast that Trump had any prior business with the Milins.
“Neither Mr. Trump nor any of his companies ever worked with or were associated with NGC,” Garten emailed. When sent the 2006 article referencing their business deal, Garten once again said “Untrue. Never partnered or associated with NGC.” When asked a third time, he responded “simply not accurate.”
But Michael Sexton, the president of Trump’s now-defunct Trump University, stated in 2006, according to The Sacramento Bee’s story, that NGC was selected to partner with them because they were “the best in the business.”
The Milins themselves did not respond to multiple calls and emails from The Daily Beast.
“I don’t know how to describe Mike. He was an egomaniac, not very smart, insecure guy who struck lightning in a bottle,” a source who worked at NGC, and wished not to be named, told The Daily Beast. He confirmed that NGC was using its own infrastructure—staffers and office space—to help run Trump’s fledgling education operation.
Hesitant to even speak the Milins’ name aloud, the source said, “They wanted the big house and the fancy car and could give a shit.”
Nolan Apostle, a 55-year-old small-business owner in San Francisco, said he learned this the hard way.
“They should definitely be in jail. They should definitely pay the consequences,” Apostle told The Daily Beast about the Milins. He paid the $999 at a seminar in California in the late ’90s and didn’t receive all the materials he was promised. After half a dozen attempts to reach people affiliated with the company, Apostle didn’t get his money back.
“They said, ‘We’ll get back to you.’ Of course they didn’t call,” he said.
Apostle says he spoke to nearly 200 customers about their experiences with the company and not a single person got what they were promised.
“I honestly—I’ve never met or spoken to anybody that actually got a grant through their system.”
Ed Magedson, who runs RipoffReport.com, shared a number of emails with The Daily Beast in which customers used his services to help them get individual refunds from NGC when they didn’t get the products they were promised. His site is full of these complaints about the company.
“It was a typical take the customers’ money, give them a cheap introduction class, try to get them an upsell [scheme],” Schreiber said describing NGC to The Daily Beast. He said the company provided “no value for its customers” and that the Milins had committed fraud.
The couple also has an outstanding lawsuit filed in Palm Beach County court alleging the Milins defaulted on a commercial property lease. The court has not responded to an inquiry from The Daily Beast about the status of this litigation.
It’s unclear when, or if, the Milins and Trump parted ways but Trump University largely ceased operations by 2011. Two years later, New York State filed a $40 million lawsuit against Trump University alleging illegal practices and false claims. A year later, a separate class-action civil suit was filed in San Diego, involving claimants from California, Florida, and New York. The lawsuits are still pending and Trump’s attorneys have expressed interest in postponing further litigation until after the presidential election. The plaintiffs are seeking to go to trial over the summer.
After their business crashed and burned, the Milins later got politically involved, hosting a fundraiser for Mitt Romney in Boca Raton, shortly after his disastrous “47 percent” comment. They have contributed considerable amounts of money to political candidates, but surprisingly none to Donald Trump this cycle. Marco Rubio, however, received a $1,500 check from Irene Milin as recently as Feb. 29, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Why Trump, who at the time had an internationally recognized real estate brand and a reality television show, would allegedly team up with a ubiquitously known snake oil salesman is anyone’s guess. But for a former associate of the Milins, the answer was simple.
“It was all about the money. Like all the other deals.”