By MICHAEL R. SISAK
NEW YORK (AP) — A Manhattan judge said Thursday he will appoint an independent monitor “to ensure there is no further fraud” at former President Donald Trump’s company, restricting its ability to freely make deals, sell assets and change its corporate structure.
Judge Arthur Engoron ordered an outside watchdog as he presides over a lawsuit in which New York’s attorney general alleges Trump and the Trump Organization misled banks and others about the value of prized assets, including golf courses and hotels bearing his name.
Attorney General Letitia James says the company is continuing to engage in fraud and has taken steps to dodge potential penalties from her lawsuit, such as incorporating a new, similarly named entity — Trump Organization LLC — in September, just before the lawsuit was filed.
Engoron wrote in an 11-page order that Trump and the Trump Organization “demonstrated propensity to engage in persistent fraud” and that appointing an outside monitor “is the most prudent and narrowly tailored mechanism to ensure there is no further fraud or illegality” pending the resolution of the lawsuit.
James, a Democrat, is seeking $250 million and a permanent ban on Trump, a Republican, doing business in the state.
Trump contends that James’ investigation of him is a “political witch hunt” and last week ripped Engoron on social media, calling him “vicious, biased, and mean.”
Engoron, in agreeing to appoint a monitor, barred the Trump Organization from selling or transferring any noncash assets without giving the court and James’ office 14 days notice. The to-be-named monitor will be charged with ensuring the company’s compliance and will immediately report any violations to the court and lawyers for both sides.
The Trump Organization must also grant the monitor access to its financial statements, asset valuations and other disclosures, must provide a full and accurate description of the company’s structure and must give the monitor at least 30 days notice of any potential restructuring, refinancing or asset sales, Engoron said.
It’s just the latest ruling Engoron has made against Trump or Trump-related interests.
While presiding over disputes over subpoenas issued in James’ investigation, the judge, a Democrat, held Trump in contempt and fined him $110,000 after he was slow to turn over documents, and he forced him to sit for a deposition. In that testimony, Trump invoked his Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination more than 400 times.
“Today’s decision sets a dangerous precedent for government interference in private enterprise and is an obvious attempt to influence the outcome of the upcoming election,” the Trump Organization said in a statement, calling the move “more political persecution by Letitia James.”
Trump Organization lawyer Christopher Kise said Engoron’s order “effectively seizes control” of the company’s financial affairs and sends a message that “free enterprise is simply not welcome in New York.”
James’ senior enforcement counsel, Kevin Wallace, said at a hearing preceding Engoron’s decision that they were seeking “limited” oversight and wouldn’t want the monitor involved in intricacies, such as how many rounds of golf or hotel rooms they were booking in a given year.
“Our goal in doing this is not to impact the day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization,” said Wallace.
“The Trump Organization has a persistent record of not complying with existing court orders,” Wallace said. “It should not be incumbent on the court or the attorney general to spend the next year looking over their shoulder, making sure assets aren’t sold or the company restructured.”
Trump sued James in Florida on Wednesday, seeking to block her from having any oversight over the family trust that controls his company. Trump’s 35-page complaint rehashed some claims from his previously dismissed lawsuit against James in federal court in New York.
Wallace said at Thursday’s hearing that James’ office is seeking to stop “fraudulent activities that are ongoing at the Trump Organization” and wants safeguards in place so that the company can’t just sell off assets, such as Trump Tower and an office building at 40 Wall Street, that could eventually be used to pay a potential lawsuit judgment.
Kise responded that the company has “no intention” to divest those properties, which together he says conservatively have a value of at least $250 million. The “Trump entities are not going anywhere,” he added.
Kise argued that James’ lawsuit was much ado about common, good-faith disagreements in the real estate industry. If banks that loaned Trump money felt he or the company had acted improperly, they would have spoken up, Kise said.
“There’s no problem. There’s no case here,” Kise said. “It’s mind-numbing that we’re going to have a receiver insert himself or herself into these complex transactions instead of the owner of this real estate.”
Engoron took issue with at least one aspect of Kise’s reasoning, asking him if there was really a “good-faith disagreement” when Trump claimed his Trump Tower penthouse was three times its actual size, and $200 million more valuable.
As for the new Trump entity that drew concern from James’ office, Kise said the company — listed in a New York corporate filing as Trump Organization II — had nothing to do with dodging potential penalties from James’ lawsuit, but rather “consolidation of payroll issues that have arisen in other contexts.”
Kise didn’t offer additional details. The Trump Organization’s payroll practices are among the issues being raised at the company’s Manhattan criminal fraud trial, which was halted Tuesday and is expected to resume Monday after a witness tested positive for COVID-19.
Follow Michael Sisak on Twitter at twitter.com/mikesisak and send confidential tips by visiting https://www.ap.org/tips/.