Editor’s note: This story was originally published in the Miami Herald on March 25, 2012.
For Donald Trump, it was a stunning landmark of the 21st century: a luxury high-rise shaped like an ocean liner and bearing his name that would turn Fort Lauderdale Beach into an international draw.
In splashy brochures, Trump beckoned investors to buy into a resort that would represent “the finest and most luxurious experience I have created.”
Now, with the hulking, empty tower casting a shadow over one of Florida’s most popular beachfronts, investors are demanding details of the massive project’s collapse and debts of $185 million.
In a heated court battle, investors want the financial records of the developers to determine why the $200 million hotel and condo project broke deadlines, failed to open, and ended ingloriously in a public sale.
“Utterly shocking,” said Joe Altschul, an attorney for 75 buyers who plunked down millions on the project that was auctioned last week at the Broward courthouse. “They created great expectations to the purchasers and the public. These people are angry.”
Developers say they were caught in the worst real-estate disaster in generations — plunging condo sales and property values — and nothing could have saved one of Florida's most high-profile venues.
“The market wiped us out,” said Julius Schwarz, a member of Bayrock Group LLC, a developer in the project. “We did as well as anyone could have done on this project.”
But investors say Trump International Hotel & Tower was plagued by problems far more serious than the slumping economy: Trump stripped his name off the 298-room project just months before it was to open, stinging buyers who put down millions because of the name.
And just months before the real-estate collapse, developers sold most of the future profits of the project for millions — including paying $1.5 million to a former New York crime family associate for his role in the deal, according to court records.
When the company’s finance director questioned his cut of the profits, he was told “to shut up or risk being killed if I made trouble,” he claimed in a court affidavit.
“If they had known the background of some of these people, I'm not sure they ever would have invested, even if Trump was the developer,” Altschul said.
Three years after the tower was to open its doors, investors are demanding millions in down payments on at least 60 units — priced between $500,000 and $3 million — accusing the developers of massive fraud.
Trump, who ended his licensing agreement with the developers in 2009, has asked to be dismissed from the lawsuits, saying he only lent his name to the project.
But after reviewing a host of advertisements featuring Trump and the resort, two judges have refused to release the real-estate mogul from the cases.
“He’s going to have a hard time explaining how he didn't approve of those ads,” said Alex Davis, a Michigan businessman fighting to recoup a $100,000 deposit on an oceanfront studio.
Roy Stillman, a New York developer who partnered with Bayrock Group in the venture, didn’t return calls to his office seeking comment.
When it was unveiled in 2004, the glitzy project was like few others in Florida, a plan to usher in a new era for a beach still peppered with T-shirt shops, bars and tattoo parlors.
But it would encounter a series of problems — a bad economy, a failed lender and differences among the development team — that placed the plan in peril.
First, a big construction loan was put on hold because of delays that put the venue precariously behind schedule. Through flashy brochures, developers said there would be a grand opening by spring 2007, but it was barely an empty shell.
“I’d keep going there and even asking security guards,” said buyer Frank Schifano, who said he drove from his Orlando home eight times. “Everything started to delay.”
Then, Bayrock, the development partner, made a rare deal that would later raise questions: It found an investor willing to pay $50 million for any future profits that would come from the Fort Lauderdale project as well as three others.
With the opening two years away, the developer struck a deal with the investor — an Icelandic company — and then funneled the millions through a Delaware shell company.
In addition, the developer agreed to give $1.5 million to the person who brokered the deal: Salvatore Lauria, a onetime mob associate who was convicted in a $40 million stock swindle in New York years earlier.
Lauria’s connection to the developer: He was arrested in the same stock fraud with another Bayrock executive, Felix Sater, who pleaded guilty to racketeering.
The deal would come to light when the developer’s finance chief filed a compensation lawsuit in Delaware, claiming his colleagues concealed the sale of the future profits as a loan to avoid paying taxes to the IRS. Three of the four projects on which the future profits were based have since defaulted.
While Bayrock was battling the suit — vehemently denying allegations of tax fraud — the company and its partners were facing a condo market that plummeted 37 percent since the Fort Lauderdale project began.
The big setback occurred in 2009 when Trump decided to pull his name from the marquee and end his agreement with the developers.
In an interview, Trump said he was “not happy with certain things,” including “the pace of construction.” In the end, “we had nothing to do with the development of that job,” he said. “We had a licensing agreement [to use the Trump name], [and] we terminated that job years ago.”
But the move dealt a blow to buyers. “They were shocked,” Altschul said. “They wouldn’t have gotten in. They wouldn’t have paid what they paid if they had known Trump wasn’t the developer.”
In all, buyers spent an average 38 percent more per square foot for a Trump unit than the other condo-hotels on the beach, bank records state.
For months, buyers pleaded for help from the state, which holds enforcement power over condominiums. But no investigation was ever launched.
Buyers said they grew even more skittish about the deal when the project’s largest lender, Corus Bank of Chicago, was seized by federal regulators over a host of failed loans.
And then the CEO of Bayrock was arrested in Turkey on suspicion of organizing a prostitution ring of Ukrainian and Russian women rounded up on a 408-foot yacht. Charges were dropped weeks later on the first day of trial against Tevfik Arif.
The project ended when a big loan came due from the lender — $139 million — and the developers couldn’t pay it in 2010. Just last month, a Broward circuit judge ordered a public auction.
On March 14, only one bidder stepped forward: the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in a partnership with a real-estate and investment firm that took over from the failed bank.
With the 24-story venue nearly finished, except for the restaurant and spa, the new owner is looking at several options, including opening a luxury hotel.
But buyers are expected to fight to recover their money and inspect records of the project. “We need to do an autopsy,” Altschul said. “The public has a stake in this.”
The developers and even Trump say the venture was a victim of the failing economy. “There’s never been a downturn like the one we had, not since the 1920s,” Trump said.
Several experts interviewed by The Miami Herald question whether the condo-hotel model was even feasible in a down market.
Altschul insists the failure goes beyond the real-estate crisis. “You have other condo-hotel projects on the beach that are still operating. They didn’t fail,” he said, rattling off the names of three others that opened since 2004.
Of 14 other condo-hotels in South Florida, only the Fort Lauderdale project suffered a default, said Gregory Rumpel, executive vice president of Jones Lang LaSalle Hotels.
But to Rumple, who has worked closely with troubled models, the failure had more to do with delays and timing than Trump. “It didn’t deliver in time to close,” he said. “Six months in this business can be the difference between life and death.”
Altschul said one reason for demanding the records — emails, internal memos and bank records — is to find out why the project didn’t finish on time. “There are still a lot of unknowns,” he said.
A trial is set for next October in Broward circuit court.
While Trump is a key target in the cases, Altschul said he believes Trump would have completed the project if he had truly been the developer.
“If he had skin in the game — and I’m talking about his own money — this would have finished. He’s not going to let it go south.”