It’s a common saying that pigs become fat and hogs are slaughtered. This means that while you can have fun in pen, there could be serious consequences if you get too involved. His former President Donald Trump and his children were just accused of very hog-like behavior. Allegedly inflating his property values and net worth to potential lenders or insurers to obtain preferential interest rates. Although this is a civil and not criminal suitcase, New York State Attorney General Letitia Jams has referred it to the federal criminal law enforcement officers. Until now–with a few exceptions, Trump University-Trump has avoided many alleged wrongs. However, the extent of his allegedly false claims and the documentation proof in James’ complaint may have finally crossed the line. This should be a lesson for all those who try to cheat the system.
Without a sale, it is difficult to value property values. Appraisers are known for valuing properties in ways that favor their clients. There is some room for error. There is some room for error, however. Valuations can become so high or low that it’s impossible to believe they are accurate. James claimed Wednesday that Trump and his company routinely increased the property’s value without any basis. This allowed them to receive a number of benefits, including the ability to borrow money and very low-interest rates. Trump may argue that the disagreement over the value offered simply reflects an opinion or was done with no intent to deceive. However, the attorney general asserted that Trump’s organization misrepresented hard facts like the square footage in his apartment.
My law students know that there’s always a tax angle to every case. This is a fact I tell them often. The complaint outlines that the most compelling evidence that Trump deliberately inflated the value of his property–and thus his net worth-–can be found in claims he made contemporaneously for state tax purposes. He gave lower valuations to tax authorities and gave higher values to potential lenders, which is not surprising. The attorney general believes that he either committed tax fraud by giving unreasonably low valuations to tax authorities or by committing fraud on his lenders, insurers, and creditors by using valuations significantly greater than those reported to the state and federal governments.
The complaint shows that Trump knew the problems of using one value for tax purposes to offset another for financial reasons. He claimed that Trump Tower in Chicago was unworthy, which could have resulted in a significant loss that could reduce his tax liability. He did not want to refute that claim, and he removed the building’s value from his Statements on Financial Condition that he gave to lenders. He seemed less cautious with his Las Vegas property. He tinkered with assumptions and the discount rates to give Clark County a lower valuation and one that would be more attractive to potential investors and bankers.
His Trump Seven Springs property, Westchester County in New York, is also subject to tax issues. The estate was valued at almost $300 million. He believed that it could be converted into several $23 million estates. However, approvals from different towns were not required to do so. He was also working to create a conservation easement on the land, which would prevent the development he had described in his valuation.
The conservation easement prevents future and current owners from developing their property. This arguably creates a public advantage and decreases the property’s value. Congress allows taxpayers to deduct the conservation easement’s value as a charitable donation in order to compensate them for their efforts. This is one of few cases where a higher valuation can be used for tax purposes because it increases the property’s value. The complaint states that contemporaneous tax valuations yielded a lower number than the nearly $300 million stated in financial documents. Even the smaller number was inaccurate and overstated the property’s value, leading improperly to a high tax deduction.
Lenders are tempted to inflate the property’s value to get loans that they wouldn’t otherwise make and to charge lower interest rates because they believe they are taking less risk. Many of these loans will become due over the next few years. It is unclear how Trump or his organization will repay them. Trump’s understating of the property’s value for tax purposes means he pays fewer taxes than he should and the rest of us have to make up the difference through higher taxes or lower government services.
Although valuation’s vagaries allow for some flexibility in both directions, the submission of radically different valuations to different purposes at the same moment falls more on the pig side of the spectrum. New York’s civil lawsuit may just be the beginning. Tax and criminal proceedings may be on the horizon. This case is not about slaughter, but the defendants may be able to get a ticket for a different type of pen.