David Cay Johnston, the former New York Times reporter, has long been one of my favourite financial journalists. With his curious mixture of class politics and libertarian zeal, he is a journalist who can be relied upon to regularly put American society under an uncomfortable microscope.
Here he poses some very disagreeable questions to Donald Trump, the billionaire property magnate and casino boss whose mix of populist economic policies and an American nativism that borders on fascism, has propelled him to the top spot in the Republican race for the presidential nomination.
It is clear that Johnston regards Trump as a liar and a phony but it is the links his questions suggest between Trump and the mob, especially in New Jersey, that stand out. When you come to think of it casinos, the construction business and the mob, they all go together.
Here is the article posing 21 questions to Trump which appeared in The National Memo way back in mid-July, just as ‘The Donald’ was beginning his primary race surge. We could do with a David Cay Johnston or two in Irish journalism right now:
I have covered Donald Trump off and on for 27 years — including breaking the story that in 1990, when he claimed to be worth $3 billion but could not pay interest on loans coming due, his bankers put his net worth at minus $295 million. And so I have closely watched what Trump does and what government documents reveal about his conduct.
Reporters, competing Republican candidates, and voters would learn a lot about Trump if they asked for complete answers to these 21 questions.
So, Mr. Trump…
1. You call yourself an “ardent philanthropist,” but have not donated a dollar to The Donald J. Trump Foundation since 2006. You’re not even the biggest donor to the foundation, having given about $3.7 million in the previous two decades while businesses associated with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment gave the Trump Foundation $5 million. All the money since 2006 has come from those doing business with you.
How does giving away other people’s money, in what could be seen as a kickback scheme, make you a philanthropist?
2. New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman successfully sued you, alleging your Trump University was an “illegal educational institution” that charged up to $35,000 for “Trump Elite” mentorships promising personal advice from you, but you never showed up and your “special” list of lenders was photocopied from Scotsman Guide, a magazine found at any bookstore.
Why did you not show up?
3. You claimed The Learning Annex paid you a $1 million speaking fee, but on Larry King Live, you acknowledged the fee was $400,000 and the rest was the promotional value.
Since you have testified under oath that your public statements inflate the value of your assets, can voters use this as a guide, so whenever you say $1, in reality it is only 40 cents?
4. The one-page financial statement handed out at Trump Tower when you announced your candidacy says you’ve given away $102 million worth of land.
Will you supply a list of each of these gifts, with the values you assigned to them?
5. The biggest gift you have talked about appears to be an easement at the Palos Verdes, California, golf course bearing your name on land you wanted to build houses on, but that land is subject to landslides and is now the golf course driving range.
Did you or one of your businesses take a tax deduction for this land that you could not build on and do you think anyone should get a $25 million tax deduction for a similar self-serving gift?
6. Trump Tower is not a steel girder high rise, but 58 stories of concrete.
Why did you use concrete instead of traditional steel girders?
7. Trump Tower was built by S&A Concrete, whose owners were “Fat” Tony Salerno, head of the Genovese crime family, and Paul “Big Paul” Castellano, head of the Gambinos, another well-known crime family.
If you did not know of their ownership, what does that tell voters about your management skills?
8. You later used S&A Concrete on other Manhattan buildings bearing your name.
9. In demolishing the Bonwit Teller building to make way for Trump Tower, you had no labor troubles, even though only about 15 unionists worked at the site alongside 150 Polish men, most of whom entered the country illegally, lacked hard hats, and slept on the site.
How did you manage to avoid labor troubles, like picketing and strikes, and job safety inspections while using mostly non-union labor at a union worksite — without hard hats for the Polish workers?
10. A federal judge later found you conspired to cheat both the Polish workers, who were paid less than $5 an hour cash with no benefits, and the union health and welfare fund. You testified that you did not notice the Polish workers, whom the judge noted were easy to spot because they were the only ones on the work site without hard hats.
What should voters make of your failure or inability to notice 150 men demolishing a multi-story building without hard hats?
11. You sent your top lieutenant, lawyer Harvey I. Freeman, to negotiate with Ken Shapiro, the “investment banker” for Nicky Scarfo, the especially vicious killer who was Atlantic City’s mob boss, according to federal prosecutors and the New Jersey State Commission on Investigation.
Since you emphasize your negotiating skills, why didn’t you negotiate yourself?
12. You later paid a Scarfo associate twice the value of a lot, officials determined.
Since you boast that you always negotiate the best prices, why did you pay double the value of this real estate?
13. You were the first person recommended for a casino license by the New Jersey Attorney General’s Division of Gaming Enforcement, which opposed all other applicants or was neutral. Later it came out in official proceedings that you had persuaded the state to limit its investigation of your background.
Why did you ask that the investigation into your background be limited?
14. You were the target of a 1979 bribery investigation. No charges were filed, but New Jersey law mandates denial of a license to anyone omitting any salient fact from their casino application.
Why did you omit the 1979 bribery investigation?
15. The prevailing legal case on license denials involved a woman, seeking a blackjack dealer license, who failed to disclose that as a retail store clerk she had given unauthorized discounts to friends.
In light of the standard set for low-level license holders like blackjack dealers, how did you manage to keep your casino license?
16. In 1986 you wrote a letter seeking lenient sentencing for Joseph Weichselbaum, a convicted marijuana and cocaine trafficker who lived in Trump Tower and in a case that came before your older sister, Judge Maryanne Trump Barry of U.S. District Court in Newark, New Jersey, who recused herself because Weichselbaum was the Trump casinos and Trump family helicopter consultant and pilot.
Why did you do business with Weichselbaum, both before and after his conviction?
17. Your first major deal was converting the decrepit Commodore Hotel next to Grand Central Station into a Grand Hyatt. Mayor Abe Beame, a close ally of your father Fred, gave you the first-ever property tax abatement on a New York City hotel, worth at least $400 million over 40 years.
Since you boast that you are a self-made billionaire, how do you rationalize soliciting and accepting $400 million of welfare from the taxpayers?
18. You say that your experience as a manager will allow you to run the federal government much better than President Obama or Hillary Clinton. On Fortune Magazine’s 1999 list of the 496 most admired companies, your casino company ranked at the bottom – worst or almost worst in management, use of assets, employee talent, long-term investment value, and social responsibility. Your casino company later went bankrupt.
Why should voters believe your claims that you are a competent manager?
19. Your Trump Plaza casino was fined $200,000 for discriminating against women and minority blackjack dealers to curry favor with gambler Robert Libutti, who lost $12 million, and who insisted he never asked that blacks and women be replaced.
Why should we believe you “love” what you call “the blacks” and the enterprise you seek to lead would not discriminate again in the future if doing so appeared to be lucrative?
20. Public records (cited in my book Temples of Chance) show that as your career took off, you legally reported a negative income and paid no income taxes as summarized below:
Tax Paid: $18,714
Tax Paid: $10,832
Tax Paid: $42,386
Tax Paid: $0
Tax Paid: $0
Will you release your tax returns? And if not, why not?
21. In your first bestselling book, The Art of the Deal, you told how you had not gotten much work done on your first casino, so you had crews dig and fill holes to create a show. You said one director of your partner, Holiday Inns, asked what was going on. “This was difficult for me to answer, but fortunately this board member was more curious than he was skeptical,” you wrote.
Given your admission that you used deception to hide your failure to accomplish the work, why should we believe you now?