High court reveals secret deal of Trump developer’s crimes
Investors in a failed $200 million condo-hotel deal in Fort Lauderdale weren’t told of a key developer’s criminal history. The courts kept it a secret.
07/31/2012 5:00 AM
09/14/2012 11:29 AM
Dozens of explosive records released by the U.S. Supreme Court show a developer of the failed Trump tower in Fort Lauderdale helped put away dangerous Mafia soldiers — while prosecutors struck a secret deal to conceal his charges in a major scam with mob members.
As he was awaiting sentencing in the $40 million stock swindle, Felix Sater and others were convincing investors to pour millions into the Trump resort, which later collapsed amid allegations of widespread fraud.
The documents provide a rare glimpse of the deal reached by New York federal prosecutors that’s now being criticized by Trump deal investors who say they had a right to know Sater’s background before investing in the botched venture.
More than 100 people lost millions in the once celebrated high-rise that’s now a chained-off, empty building on Fort Lauderdale’s popular beachfront strip.
“The damage done to victims is incalculable,” said attorneys in a request to the court that they be allowed to unveil Sater’s criminal past in a civil racketeering case.
The court, now in recess, could take up the petition when it returns later this year in what’s become a heated battle over the rights of judges to strip someone’s criminal case from public view.
Sater, who owns a $4.8 million condo on Fisher Island, could not be reached for comment. Robert Nardoza, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn, declined to be interviewed.
The release of the records follows a bitter court fight over the delicate issue of protecting a key government witness versus disclosure to people who have a right to know.
Although dozens of the newly released records are redacted — including Sater’s name — lawyers argue the court hid his racketeering conviction while he and others defrauded people of hundreds of millions in real estate deals — including projects bearing Trump’s name in South Florida and Phoenix.
Sater, 46, is accused in a civil case of helping to hide millions from the failed Fort Lauderdale tower — and paying $1.5 million to a former mob associate for his role in the deal.
When a former finance chief of the project team questioned his cut of the profits in 2007, he was told by Sater to “shut up or risk being killed if I caused trouble,” the chief said in an affidavit. Bayrock, the company where Sater was a top executive, has denied the allegations.
Investors in the Trump International Hotel & Tower north of Las Olas Boulevard argue they were deprived of knowing Sater’s criminal past when they plunked down millions on the spectacular project — then Florida’s largest condo-hotel deal.
At the time of the groundbreaking, Sater had not yet been sentenced in the securities scam in which he pleaded guilty to joining crime syndicate members in ripping off scores of people across the country.
Five years earlier, he had another bad brush with the law: stabbing a man with a shattered glass during a bar fight, drawing a prison sentence.
Joe Altschul, a Fort Lauderdale lawyer representing 75 condo buyers, blasted the court for agreeing to conceal Sater’s racketeering conviction.
“Each of these purchasers had a right to know who they were dealing with,” he said. “It’s bad enough that they prop up Donald Trump as the developer, but then you find out it’s not Trump but a convicted felon who had already been charged in financial shenanigans.”
Altschul said investors are now pushing for more details to uncover the demise of the $200 million project that missed construction deadlines and eventually went broke — months after Donald Trump stripped his name off the marquee in 2009.
Altschul said two other Trump projects led by Sater and the developers failed in Phoenix and New York, costing millions. “That’s not a good percentage,” he said.
Lawyers in the petition before the Supreme Court went a step further, saying the court in Brooklyn “illegally” sealed the case, and never ordered Sater to make restitution in the $40 million stock fraud. “[Sater’s] victims were deprived of their rights,” the brief states. “The courts must know that he has been emboldened to continue his frauds.”
When reached on Tuesday, Richard Lerner, the lawyer who filed the petition, declined comment.
The brief also claims the Sater case is among many under seal in the Eastern District of New York, “creating a covert dual justice system accountable to no one, without public notice.”
But the judge who oversaw the Sater case from a decade ago defended the actions of the court, saying he needed to protect the safety of witnesses.
Judge Leo Glasser blasted the lawyers for breaching the court rules, saying they overstepped their bounds in divulging Sater’s record and other highly sensitive information in a civil lawsuit — which has since been sealed.
The judge said the lawyers had “knowingly and intentionally flouted” his order by “unilaterally deciding” to insert Sater’s pre-sentence report — a leaked document— into the suit.
Paul Cassell, a former federal judge who has brought the case to the attention of Congress, said Glasser is just as responsible for the controversy.
By sealing the case and not ordering Sater to pay back his victims in the stock fraud case, “the [court] illegally gave away millions to a criminal,” said Cassell, who joined an appeal of the case last year.
Tom Julin, a First Amendment lawyer from Miami, said judicial circuits, including the one that takes in Florida, bans the practice of stripping court dockets from public view.
“It’s the worst thing a judge can do,” he said. “In a day and age when economic crimes can affect massive amounts of people there’s a real danger in super sealing these kinds of judicial proceedings.”
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