Broward County

Developer who promised Russian help for Trump project was behind failed Fort Lauderdale condo

Donald Trump stands with Bayrock Group CEO Tevfik Arif and executive Felix Sater at a launch party for Trump Soho in New York City in 2007. Sater is now involved in the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Donald Trump stands with Bayrock Group CEO Tevfik Arif and executive Felix Sater at a launch party for Trump Soho in New York City in 2007. Sater is now involved in the investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia. Mark Von Holden

Investors said they thought Donald Trump was the brains behind a condo tower in Fort Lauderdale that went belly-up during the recession, sparking more than a dozen lawsuits and millions of dollars in losses.

But in reality all they were getting was Trump’s name.

The team that actually spearheaded the development included Felix Sater, a Moscow-born real estate broker who worked with the Trump Organization in New York and is now mixed up in Trump’s Russia troubles.

Sater has a long and sordid past. He once did prison time for stabbing a man in the face with the stem of a shattered glass during a barroom brawl. He pleaded guilty to defrauding stock investors of $40 million in cahoots with members of the Gambino organized crime family.

Some of the jilted Fort Lauderdale investors said they wouldn’t have signed on to the project had they known of Sater’s criminal past. But federal prosecutors kept his role a secret, sealing the court file, because of his work putting criminals behind bars as an FBI informant.

Now, Sater finds himself in the middle of the explosive investigation into whether Trump associates sought help from the Russian government to win the 2016 presidential election.

The collapse of the celebrated Trump International Hotel & Tower in Fort Lauderdale four years ago cost buyers millions in lost deposits, sparked more than a dozen lawsuits, and has now emerged as a campaign issue that threatens to follow the GOP

On Monday, the New York Times reported that Sater had emailed Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, during the campaign to pitch him on building a Trump Tower in Moscow. The deal, Sater said, would burnish Trump’s credentials.

“Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in late 2015, before the Republican primaries, according to the Times. “I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.”

“I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected,” Sater wrote in another message. The emails were recently turned over to the House Intelligence Committee as part of its Russia probe.

The Moscow project never got off the ground and Sater may have overstated his influence in Russia, the Times reported. Sater does have some connections in the former Soviet Union: He helped a controversial politician from Kazakhstan move money into the United States, according to McClatchy.

Sater could not be reached directly Tuesday. His attorney said Sater was not giving interviews.

Trump International Hotel & Tower Fort Lauderdale is shown here in a rendering. Miami Herald file

Trump worked with Sater on a number of troubled projects during the recession.

The Trump International Hotel & Tower in Fort Lauderdale promised 24 stories of opulence under the gold-plated Trump brand, including a five-star restaurant and multimillion dollar penthouses. Sater, then a top executive at Bayrock Group, was part of the team entrusted to bring the tower to life.

But when sales evaporated as the economy collapsed, the hulking, concrete shell was abandoned. Trump walked away in 2009. Buyers who, together, invested millions in deposits — banking on the Trump name — lost their shirts. Developers had already spent $140 million on construction.

Soon, investors filed lawsuits alleging they’d been misled as to the extent of Trump’s involvement. Several said brochures and promotional materials gave the false impression that Trump was the lead developer. In one letter Trump wrote to investors, he stated: “It is with great pleasure that I present my latest development.”

But the Trump Organization pointed to disclosures it made stating the beachfront Fort Lauderdale project was only a licensing deal. That meant the development group would use Trump’s name without asking him to handle construction or management.

Most of the cases were settled confidentially. “It was a good settlement, but I can’t be specific on it,” said Joseph Altschul, a Pembroke Pines lawyer representing nearly 80 clients who’d spent about $8 million on deposits for Trump units.

Last year, a Florida appeals court ruled in Trump’s favor in the last two lawsuits. The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.

Donald Trump testifies during a civil case at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale in 2014. Buyers sued to recover their 20 percent deposits, contending that they thought Trump was the developer. Amy Beth Bennett MCT

In the years that followed the project’s collapse, Trump distanced himself from Sater, who had used a Trump Organization business card and briefly worked as a senior advisor to the developer, according to the Washington Post.

The future president testified in a 2013 deposition that he wouldn’t recognize Sater “if he was sitting in a room right now.”

The tower was eventually bought out by another firm and rebranded the Conrad Fort Lauderdale Beach resort and residences. It is expected to open in September, a decade after the original target date, according to the Sun Sentinel.

In the meantime, Sater seems to have cut some of his South Florida ties.

After the Fort Lauderdale project launched, Sater bought a $4.8 million condo on fancy Fisher Island. Two years ago, he sold the unit for $5 million to a shell company with an address in Mexico, Miami-Dade County property records show.

During the presidential campaign, attack ads from Trump opponents highlighted his ties to Sater.

“Trump entrusted convicts to help him run his company,” stated one. “Who would he entrust to run the country?”

Nicholas Nehamas: 305-376-3745, @NickNehamas