Inside Donald Trump's Ugly, Litigious History in Florida
John Taglieri is a self-described "blue-collar worker kinda guy." In 2005, the now-70-year-old restaurant owner with a tan that sets off his blue eyes and white hair put money down for a one-bedroom condo in the preconstruction Trump International Hotel & Tower Fort Lauderdale.
Lured by the New York businessman's strong real-estate reputation, the Boston native plunked down about $150,000. But the project was never built. And for years, he's been buried in litigation. Going up against the Republican nominee for president in court, he says, might have been a mistake.
"He wanted to basically bury me," Taglieri says. "He wanted to make an example of me, like, 'You go against me, you're gonna get it.'?"
Taglieri is just one of hundreds of people who have been ensnared in nasty lawsuits with Donald Trump. Indeed, according to a USA Today investigation published this past June, Trump has been involved in more than 3,500 lawsuits nationwide in the past 30 years — including at least 60 in which he was accused of failing to pay people for work. A significant number of these cases have been filed in Florida, the Republican nominee's second home and the state he most needs to win to gain the presidency. They run a wide range, from attempts to boost his megarich resorts to allegations of unpaid work from contractors. A sampling:
• Trump has tried to prevent planes from flying over his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach for more than two decades. He sued the county in June 1995 for $75 million, alleging the noise was ruining his investment. He dropped that suit when the county gave him the land he later turned into Trump International Golf Club. Two other lawsuits over the purported noise issue followed — one in 2010 and another last year that claimed airport director Bruce Pelly was "seeking revenge by attacking Mar-a-Lago from the air."
• A failed 190-unit condo tower in Tampa led to a prolonged court battle involving Trump, his business partners, and buyers. The Apprentice host and developers announced the project in January 2005 with this bold statement: "We are developing a signature landmark property so spectacular that it will redefine both Tampa's skyline and the market's expectations of luxurious condominium living." But Trump wasn't the developer — he only lent his name to the project through a secret licensing agreement with developers. Buyers flocked to put down deposits on the units, which ranged in price from $700,000 to $6 million. The developers later ran into problems and stopped paying Trump licensing fees — so he sued them for more than $1 million. Of course, this lawsuit made their secret agreement public knowledge, so the developers countersued him for breaking confidentiality. The two parties settled their beef in 2008. Buyers, meanwhile, lost out big-time. After the project flopped, they recovered only half of their deposits, in some cases losing more than $250,000. A few dozen buyers ended up suing Trump in 2009 for misrepresenting himself as the developer. In the end, they all settled for pennies on the dollar. The buyers who did not join the lawsuit, of course, received nothing.
• In January 2015, 48 plaintiffs sued Trump Miami Resort Management LLC, claiming they were stiffed out of minimum wage and overtime pay for temp work they had done at his Doral resort as part of a tour for Passover. Trump's lawyers argued he wasn't at fault — any unpaid wages were the responsibility of the staffing agency and tour-organizing company named as codefendants in the lawsuit. The workers pushed back, pointing to various ways in which Trump's company was directly involved as their employer, including the hiring and management of all 48 plaintiffs. In the end, the workers settled for an undisclosed amount. Attorney Rod Hannah says the multimillionaire's legal team used "scorched-earth tactics" in an unsuccessful attempt to get the case thrown out of court. Trump's company is now countersuing the other related defendants.
• Juan Carlos Enriquez, owner of the Paint Spot, a tiny home-improvement store, sued Trump National Doral Miami in 2014, alleging he wasn't paid $34,863 of a $200,000 contract for sprucing up the place. When Trump National fought back in court, the paint shop put a lien on the resort, causing a judge to order its sale at auction. Trump's company prevented the sale by placing the disputed money in escrow while the case proceeded — but in the meantime, the judge ordered Trump National to pay Enriquez's lawyers' fees and other costs, totaling $282,950. Asked for his thoughts on the case, Enriquez said only, "Business has nothing to do with politics."
• Dozens of members of Trump's golf club in Jupiter sued the club in May 2013, claiming they were charged $6,000 each in annual membership fees for facilities they were barred from using as they tried to cancel their club memberships. Before Trump bought the club, those who wanted to end their memberships were placed on a waiting list to recoup their deposits while the club searched for new members. During this waiting period, they were still charged their dues but were allowed to continue using the facilities. According to the lawsuit, this changed when Trump took over; people on the waiting list continued to be charged fees but were barred from using the club. Some 65 people say the fees have racked up while they have waited to get back their $40,000 to $200,000 in deposits. In a 2015 video deposition shown in court this past August, Trump took credit for the club — "People were very happy that I was buying [it] and taking over" — but referred questions about the membership fees to his son Eric, who said, "We have the absolute right to change our mind."
Perhaps the most interesting case, though, is Taglieri's. The restaurant owner, who now lives in a quiet peninsula town north of Boston, has humble beginnings. He grew up in the housing projects of Mattapan, a neighborhood of Boston with a strong working-class history (today known by most as the center of the city's Haitian community). He worked for 15 years as a trolley repairman for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority while doing construction work on the side.
In 1983, he began pursuing his dream of opening an Italian restaurant. He roped in friends who were plumbers, bricklayers, and electricians to build the eatery. Over two years, he built Giacomo's in the city's North End and then developed a loyal customer base. Today he has three locations and chefs to fill in where he once did the cooking.
"I ate out a lot, and I know what's out there — that's the thing I had going for me," he says matter-of-factly of his success. Even his approach to cooking was self-taught: He says he checked out cookbooks from the Boston Public Library, attended some sessions taught by Julia Child, and "even went to the French Library on Newbury Street" — the city's swankiest shopping district — to take cooking lessons.
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He had spent time in Florida and had already purchased property here. When he heard about the Fort Lauderdale condo project, it seemed like another good investment. It had been pitched as a 24-story building in which condo owners could rent out their units like a hotel. As with the Tampa project, Trump was not actually the developer; he had simply licensed use of his name for the building. But many of the promotional materials were allegedly misleading, referring to the project as "A Signature Development by Donald J. Trump."
The marketing plan worked. "Who's better than Trump?" Taglieri remembers thinking at the time. So he put down a $150,000 deposit.
The project was supposed to be done by December 2007, but according to records, it stalled numerous times. By spring 2009, it still had not come to fruition, so Trump pulled his name. Buyers such as Taglieri, who had already invested large sums of money in the building, were informed of this in May 2009. More than a dozen lawsuits resulted.
Most buyers settled with Trump in 2014, but two of the suits, involving Taglieri and another unhappy investor, J. Michael Goodson, continued into this year. As in the Tampa case, they alleged Trump falsely represented himself as the developer. Trump's lawyers argued that their client's role as simply the name behind the building was "clearly identified" in papers signed by the investors. In 2014, a Broward County circuit judge sided with Trump, saying papers included mention of the licensing agreement. An appeals court upheld that ruling this past April. Taglieri is still not impressed by how the business magnate handled it.
"He had written it up in such a way that it wasn't clear to anyone who wasn't a lawyer," Taglieri says. In court, "the lawyers had it on an easel, blown up, highlighted in red and gold. Legally, it stood up. But it was a bait-and-switch, and [Trump] knows it."
To Taglieri, the experience smacked of dishonesty. "He's a slick New York businessman," he says, "and he wants to come out and say he's for the working man? I'm a working man who made it!" He compares his lawsuit to one brought by unhappy customers of Trump University, who contend the so-called school made false promises about what it would teach in its seminars. "A lot of those people, they weren't rich people. He took advantage of them," Taglieri says.
Interestingly, the Boston restaurateur is the kind of self-made guy you'd expect to vote for Trump. Taglieri is an independent who always "votes the person, not the ticket." Besides, neither major-party candidate impresses him. He readily rattles off things about Hillary Clinton that bother him, including the reliable conservative rallying cry of "Benghazi" and what he describes as her silence during the sex scandals that rocked her husband's administration.
But when it comes to Trump, Taglieri casts his personal experiences in a broader narrative about character. "He makes fun of people with disabilities, of foreigners — it's all coming out," he says. He also raises concerns about Trump's treatment of women, referring to a Fox newscaster the candidate demeaned. "You see what he said about Megyn Kelly!"
Aside from all of this, it's clear Trump's self-branding as a candidate with business savvy and the ability to create jobs doesn't work for Taglieri. "He was a little rich kid with a Rolls-Royce," he says, referring to Trump's childhood. "You know how kids are with a lot of money."
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