Trump trial turns to 2300% valuation of ‘breathtaking’ Mar-a-Lago

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New York: Former US president Donald Trump’s civil business fraud trial has turned to one of the topics that has vexed him most – the value of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida.

Testifying for Trump’s defence, a Florida real estate lawyer said the property could be sold as a home, notwithstanding decades-old legal documents in which Trump said he intended to forego its use as anything but a club. Then a Palm Beach luxury real estate broker testified that he’d value the historic estate at more than $US1 billion ($1.5 billion) as of 2021.

Mar-a-Lago, one of many ritzy properties in Pal Beach, Florida. Credit: AP

“It’s something breathtaking. It’s something amazing to see,” broker Lawrence Moens said before showing a glimmering video complete with swelling music, aerial shots of the property at sunrise and sunset and a closing image of an American flag.

His testimony was punctuated by wry remarks. He described a photo of a different part of ritzy Palm Beach as showing “some land, some houses”, for instance.

At one point, Moens even briefly answered a personal phone call while on the witness stand: “Dad, I love you, but I’ve got to get off the phone”.

Spanning 7 hectares with waterfront on two sides, the Trump estate and social club is his home, a place where the former leader and current Republican 2024 presidential front-runner has conducted high-profile meetings while in and out of office, and the spot where federal special counsel Jack Smith alleges he improperly stashed classified documents, which Trump denies.

Mar-a-Lago is also a key element of the current New York civil case and Trump’s vehement frustration with it.

Republican presidential candidate and former president Donald Trump speaks at an event in Cedar Rapids, Iowa., on Saturday.Credit: The Gazette/AP

State Attorney-General Letitia James’ lawsuit claims Trump and his company deceived lenders and others by giving them financial statements that greatly overstated the values of some of his prime assets, including Mar-a-Lago.

Judge Arthur Engoron, in a pretrial ruling declaring that Trump and his company engaged in fraud, found that he exaggerated Mar-a-Lago’s worth by as much as 2300 per cent, compared to the Palm Beach County tax appraiser’s valuations. They ranged from $US18 million to $US28 million.

Trump denies any wrongdoing, saying that his financial statements actually undervalued his assets and were accompanied by disclaimers that wipe away liability for any mistakes.

His frequent complaints about the case have often spotlighted the claims about Mar-a-Lago, one of the holdings he called “the Mona Lisas of properties” during pretrial questioning. As recently as last Friday, Trump vented on his Truth Social platform that the judge and James “falsified the value of Mar-a-Lago”.

The Palm Beach County tax assessment that the judge mentioned was based on Mar-a-Lago’s annual net operating income as a club, not on its resale value as a home or on its reconstruction cost. The county uses the operating-income method to value other social clubs, and the outcome carries tax benefits for Trump – a $US602,000 property tax bill this year, compared to about $US18 million if Mar-a-Lago were assessed at $US1 billion.

In a 2002 agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the club and Trump signed over “any and all of their rights to develop the property for any usage other than club usage”.

Yet when pulling information together for Trump’s annual financial statements, his former corporate controller Jeffrey McConney valued Mar-a-Lago club as though the property could be sold as a private home. The statements pegged it as high as $US612 million in 2021.

James said that those values ignored the agreement with the National Trust. The attorney-general, a Democrat, maintains that Trump should have valued Mar-a-Lago by its operating income, as the county does.

But Trump, in his own testimony last month, said he believed he retained the right to re-designate the property as a home. The National Trust has declined to comment on whether it agrees.

A defence witness, Miami-based real estate attorney John Shubin, testified on Tuesday that “there is absolutely no prohibition on the use of Mar-a-Lago as a single-family residence”.

He noted that the property was simultaneously a club and Trump’s residence. Shubin also pointed to a 1993 agreement between Trump and the city that said Mar-a-Lago would revert to private residential use if the club were “abandoned”.

“Anybody who buys it … would just step into the shoes of President Trump,” defence lawyer Christopher Kise said.

Some Palm Beach luxury real estate agents have told The Associated Press that the property would sell for $US300 million to $US600 million, and possibly $1 billion or more if it sparked a bidding war among ultra-wealthy contenders.

So said Moens, a longtime Mar-a-Lago club member who has said he once sold another Palm Beach property on Trump’s behalf.

In a pretrial report, Moens pegged Mar-a-Lago’s 2021 value at more than $US1 billion, saying it would be an “unparalleled” family compound for a rarefied cadre of the world’s financial elite.

Asked during pretrial questioning whom he meant, Moens said he could “dream up anyone from Elon Musk to Bill Gates” and “kings, emperors, heads of state”.

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one,” Moens said during cross-examination, borrowing a line from John Lennon’s song Imagine and hailing Trump as “a dreamer and a great American”.

The trial had been due to continue on Wednesday with a second round of testimony from the former president’s son Eric Trump, an executive vice president at his father’s company, who’s also a defendant in the case. But defence lawyers decided they didn’t need to bring him back.

Instead, testimony will resume on Thursday (Friday AEDT) with an expert on accounting.


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