Either Letitia James has a slam-dunk case in the civil lawsuit she’s been building against Donald Trump and his company, or the trial is all she wants. The New York Times reports that the AG turned down at least one offer from Trump’s team to settle the civil suit, preferring instead to proceed to court over her fraud allegations.
Still unclear: who got defrauded.
First, though, James wants to play hardball for at least a while longer:
The New York attorney general’s office has rebuffed an offer from Donald J. Trump’s lawyers to settle a contentious civil investigation into the former president and his family real estate business, setting the stage for a lawsuit that would accuse Mr. Trump of fraud, according to three people with knowledge of the matter.
The attorney general, Letitia James, is also considering suing at least one of Mr. Trump’s adult children, the people said. Ivanka, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., have all been senior executives at Mr. Trump’s company, the Trump Organization.
The likelihood of a lawsuit grew this month after Ms. James’s office rejected at least one settlement offer from Mr. Trump’s lawyers, the people said. While the Trump Organization for months has made overtures to the attorney general’s office — and the two sides could still reach a deal — there is no indication that a settlement will materialize anytime soon.
Ms. James, a Democrat who is running for re-election in November, is focused on whether Mr. Trump fraudulently inflated the value of his assets and has mounted a three-and-a-half-year inquiry that has cemented her as one of the former president’s chief antagonists.
Curious indeed. A settlement of any kind would be immediately seen as a win for James, especially in the national media. If the terms of such a settlement offer weren’t tough enough, James could ramp up the pressure by, say, adding one of Trump’s adult children to the lawsuit … precisely as the NYT reports as a possibility. That may be a hardball move, or it may indicate that James wants a trial rather than a way to avoid that cost and uncertainty — which would indicate an entirely different set of priorities.
What makes this lawsuit even more curious is the question of who got defrauded. The Times even raises this issue, albeit a bit more obliquely, and you have to scroll almost all the way to the end to get to it:
Many of Mr. Trump’s financial statements, the filing argued, were “generally inflated as part of a pattern to suggest that Mr. Trump’s net worth was higher than it otherwise would have appeared.” The filing cited what Ms. James’s office believes were misleading statements about the value of Mr. Trump’s golf clubs in Westchester County, N.Y., and Scotland, his flagship commercial property at 40 Wall Street in Manhattan and his penthouse triplex in Trump Tower.
The company provided these statements to lenders and insurers, the filing said.
So were the lenders and insurers defrauded? And if so, why aren’t they suing Trump? It’s because they weren’t defrauded at all, it seems:
They also might argue that the Trump Organization submitted the statements to sophisticated financial institutions that conducted their own due diligence. In recent months, he paid off some of those loans, an outcome that funneled hundreds of millions of dollars into the coffers of his banks, making them an unsympathetic victim.
Ahem. It doesn’t make them “an unsympathetic victim” (bad syntax aside), it makes them no victims at all. The lenders haven’t lost money on the transactions, and the Trumps haven’t filed insurance claims for losses at inflated values. Even if they had, the insurers would be the party of standing for a civil lawsuit. If Trump stopped paying on any of the existing loans, his lenders could take him to court to get their money. None of them seem inclined to do so.
If James has an argument that the misrepresentation created a tax fraud, that might be worthwhile, but that kind of enforcement action would come from New York’s revenue agency first. Besides, tax assessments are made independently of valuation claims from property owners. Trump’s alleged inflation of his property value to lenders and insurers would have nothing to do with tax issues, nor does it appear that James is even alleging that as part of her lawsuit.
If the lender and insurers aren’t complaining, and the property taxes got paid as assessed, where is the fraud? And even more importantly, where is the standing of the AG’s office to act as a plaintiff in such matters?
Of course, these questions prompt another: why did Trump and his team offer to settle the case, if James doesn’t actually have one? The answer to both sets of questions is likely the same: politics. Trump wants to cut loose of all his legal liabilities ahead of a likely bid for the GOP presidential nomination. And James likely wants to handicap him to prevent that bid.
For what it’s worth, the Manhattan DA’s tax-evasion case against the Trump Organization (although not Trump himself) looks more significant than this case does. Maybe James should take a win while she still can, and let the stronger case play out.