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The billion-dollar question at heart of Trump fraud trial

Donald Trump calls Mar-a-Lago the “Mona Lisa” of properties, but how much is it actually worth? The question is at the centre of the civil fraud trial which threatens his family business.

It’s the magic number no-one can agree on, from a tax assessment of $18m (£14.3m) to a courtroom witness saying it would sell for more than $1bn (£797m).

Throughout the 10-week trial in New York, the prosecution and defence have contested the value of Mr Trump’s private club in Florida – as well as the line between legitimate real estate valuations and fraud.

Mr Trump, his two adult sons and the Trump Organization are accused of bloating the value of assets – which also include properties such as Trump Tower and various golf resorts – to the tune of $2bn so they could get better deals on interest rates for loans.

These friendly rates saved Mr Trump’s businesses more than $150m over the course of a decade, according to New York Attorney General Letitia James. She is seeking to ban him from conducting business in the state.

The trial is now coming to a close, but before it even started, Judge Arthur Engoron, a Democrat, ruled the financial documents at the core of these allegations “clearly contain fraudulent valuations that defendants used in business”.

“That is a fantasy world, not the real world,” he concluded, finding them liable for fraud.

Former US President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on November 15, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump announced that he was seekingFormer US President Donald Trump arrives on stage to speak during an event at his Mar-a-Lago home on November 15, 2022 in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump announced that he was seeking

Donald Trump announced his candidacy for president at an event held inside Mar-a-Lago in 2022

Mr Trump has already appealed that pre-trial ruling on one count. Now the judge – there is no jury in this trial – must decide on six more counts of fraud, all of which require evidence of intent.

The former president had been expected to return to the witness stand on Monday, but announced in a social media post on Sunday evening that he had nothing more to say in a case he describes as politically motivated.

Once again, it was the specific allegation he inflated the worth of Mar-a-Lago that seemed to offend him most: “They claimed that Mar-a- Lago was worth only $18,000,000, when it was worth 50 to 100 times that amount”.

The White Elephant that was impossible to sell

The reality of Mar-a-Lago’s value is not straightforward. The historic Palm Beach property has deed restrictions which mean it can only be used as a private club.

The land cannot be subdivided, and it requires considerable preservation expenses for the estate, which was built in 1927 for businesswoman and socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post.

This deed came about in the 1990s when Mr Trump said Mar-a-Lago was too expensive to be preserved as a private residence, calling it a “white elephant” that was “almost impossible to sell”.

Changing it to a private club meant he could use hefty membership fees to help pay for preservation and upkeep.

Rosalind Clarke, a Palm Beach real estate agent since the 1980s and a former president of the Palm Beach Board of Realtors, told BBC News the problem with valuing Mar-a-Lago came down to these restrictions.

Ms Clarke explained that the value is based on profits of the club and “not the value of the land”. She said if the deed restrictions did not exist, “the value of the property would be significantly higher”.

Between 2011 and 2021, Trump is accused of valuing Mar-a-Lago as if it had no deed restrictions.

An aerial view of Mar-a-LagoAn aerial view of Mar-a-Lago

An aerial view of Mar-a-Lago

What did Trump say it was worth on financial documents?

In his pre-trial ruling, Judge Engoron noted that the Palm Beach County Assessor appraised the market value of Mar-a-Lago at between $18 million and $27.6 million for tax purposes.

In contrast, Mr Trump valued Mar-a-Lago at between $426.5 million and $612 million over the same decade, “an overvaluation of at least 2,300%, compared to the assessor’s appraisal,” the judge wrote.

Real estate experts point out that the tax assessor value is typically lower than what a property could be sold for, so it’s not a like-for-like comparison.

The New York attorney general alleges the Trump business came up with the higher numbers by the price-per-acre of “comparable” properties – but those were for lands without deed restrictions.

The attorney general’s case claims this is fraud, that the Trump Organization knew about Mar-a-Lago’s deed restrictions and ignored them to come up with values as if it were purely a private residence.

A home fit for a ‘king or emperor’

Among all of these numbers is the heart of the lawsuit. While it involves numerous Trump properties, Mar-a-Lago is where Mr Trump rubs shoulders with the rich and powerful.

It’s his home. It’s where the former president would spend his time when not at the White House.

And in one of the marble bathrooms is where federal special counsel Jack Smith alleges Mr Trump stashed classified documents.

Hearing low valuations for Mar-a-Lago has been a major sticking point for him, and he frequently brings it up in press conferences and on social media.

Trump’s legal team called luxury Florida real estate broker Lawrence Moens as a witness, and he told the court Mar-a-Lago was worth more than $1bn.

Mr Moens said the richest of the rich would line up to buy the property, from “Elon Musk to Bill Gates” and “kings, emperors, heads of state”.

And if the deed restrictions did not exist, he might be right.

Ms Clarke, the Palm Beach agent, described Mar-a-Lago as a 17.5 acre estate with a “significant historic landmarked structure, an oceanfront parcel and the possibility of seven 3/4 acre buildable lots in a highly sought-after location”.

Without the deed restrictions, she said, “a property such as this should bring a sales price in the range of $500m, although the provenance and location could raise the amount, depending on the number of interested parties.”

What the prosecution needs to prove

When Mr Trump was on the witness stand earlier in the trial, he told the court he was not legally bound by the Mar-a-Lago deed restrictions. He also said the valuations would have been higher if they had taken account of the Trump brand.

His lawyers have also argued that it doesn’t really matter what the values of assets were, because banks do their own research and do not rely purely on financial statements to make loan decisions.

The defence’s final expert witness, accounting expert and New York University professor Eli Bartov, told the court there were errors in the financial documents, but they did not conceal fraud or show intent.

He said these “statements of financial condition” were merely the “starting point” that banks and lenders use for valuations, and “valuations are subjective”.

That theme flows into a common argument raised by Mr Trump: the banks don’t care because they made money. “No bank was affected. No bank was hurt,” he said at the start of the trial.

But the prosecution does not need to prove there were victims, they must prove there was intentional fraud. When the lawsuit was first filed, the New York attorney general said “there aren’t two sets of laws for people in this nation: former presidents must be held to the same standards as everyday Americans”.

After this week’s final testimony, and a long break before closing arguments in January, Judge Engoron will deliver his ruling on the remaining fraud charges as well as any penalties.

One problem for Mr Trump, according to Mitchell Epner, an attorney who handles commercial litigation, is that “the judge has already found that the most important documents in this case were all false”.

The worst-case scenario for Mr Trump and his fellow defendants would see them barred from doing business in New York, and hit with fines of at least $250m.

The Trump Organization could be forced to hand over control to a court-appointed receiver, or ultimately have to sell some of its most iconic landmarks – potentially even Mar-a-Lago.

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