In the fall of 1993, on the island of Palm Beach, future U.S. president Donald J. Trump became friends with Leslie Greyling, an illegal immigrant and accused con artist who is a fugitive from the law.
Back then, the local sections of the Palm Beach Post and Palm Beach Daily News nervously followed every zig and zag of Trump's crass galumph through island society. "Just about anything he does qualifies as news," the Post exclaimed November 3, 1993. The future president's scheme to turn the old Marjorie Post estate at Mar-a-Lago, which he had purchased eight years earlier, into a social club was gauche but exciting. Not since the Pulitzer divorce in 1982 had any island happening promised so much public tawdriness. Indeed, when the town council resisted Trump's rezoning plan, he threatened to sell Mar-a-Lago to Korean cult leader Sun Myung Moon.
Meanwhile, Greyling — a rotund white South African arriviste — purchased the mansion at 1094 South Ocean Blvd., next door to Mar-a-Lago, in October 1993. Or rather, he bought the shell company, L&V Investments, that owned the mansion. In this way, both Greyling and the sellers kept the sale price from the public record.
The property sits on the southwest corner of the intersection of South Ocean and Woodbridge Road, and though not the most opulent of the 14 properties along Woodbridge, it is the one closest to the Atlantic Ocean, to which it has access. A single-story home that takes up about 6,500 square feet, including the cabana house off the large pool, it has marble floors and an orange-beige exterior.
Just a month after buying the Woodbridge mansion, Greyling sold it for $1.6 million to Trump, who coveted it as a potential addition to Mar-a-Lago. The sale would be unremarkable, except that realtors listed the sale price at $3.95 million when Greyling bought it. That would mean a discount of more than $2 million for the future president of the United States and a big loss for the South African. Jeffrey Paine, a lawyer involved in all stages of the deal, told the Miami Herald that Greyling had taken a "substantial" loss, and wondered if he planned to make it up in another deal with Trump. But the whole thing was soon forgotten.
The purchase of this oceanfront property from Greyling is a lost chapter in Trump's long history of proximity to sleazy characters. It marked the beginning of a relationship that brought the Queens-born entrepreneur into contact with a collection of Palm Beach characters so shady, so venal, you could mistake them for Dick Tracy villains or even cabinet members.
Greyling would be expelled from the country and indicted twice for stock fraud. His disgraced underling would die in a Mexico City bathtub. Trump's broker on the Woodbridge deal would shoot himself in a rented Cadillac in a downtown West Palm Beach parking garage in 2012; his suicide was followed by reports of irregularities in his business. The lawyer notarizing the deal would be disbarred for his role in a scam for which he was sentenced to five years in prison, and today calls the very deal he notarized "nefarious." And the president himself gave credibility to a sham company run by Greyling that tanked, costing scores of ordinary investors millions of dollars. Trump at first called Greyling a "friend," but when things went south, he said he barely knew the man.
The story begins with two questions: Did Greyling really give Donald Trump a multimillion-dollar discount on 1094 South Ocean? And if so, why would he do a thing like that?
Leslie Greyling, now age 67, had been pursuing dodgy business ventures in the United States for almost a decade when he crossed paths with Donald Trump. Greyling arrived in 1985 and soon incorporated some 40 companies in South Florida — one of them with partner Herman J. Schannault, whom the Miami Herald called a prostitution kingpin and whom the Detroit Free Press once termed the "king of Detroit massage parlors."
Here on a visitor's visa, Greyling was forced out of a Boca Raton apartment in 1988; his landlord later told the Palm Beach Post he had squatted and taken furniture when he left. (Greyling told the Post a very different story, of a "nasty" landlord who broke the lease.) Greyling and Schannault were sued by the Securities and Exchange Commission two years later over what the agency called a penny-stock scam. Without admitting guilt, Greyling settled by promising not to engage in stock fraud.
In 1993 and 1994, Greyling was making a Trump-style stir in Palm Beach society. He looked remarkably like a joyless John Belushi, pug-faced and balding. He drove a Rolls-Royce and, with his shirt unbuttoned and surrounded by ringing phones, conducted business in the office over the garage of his rented Palm Beach mansion. At that time, he transacted much of his business by neither cash nor check, but by purchasing goods with shares of stock in a Winter Park-based company he chaired, Members Service Corporation.
It is with these shares, in part, that Greyling rented a mansion for himself and bought the one at 1094 South Ocean next to Mar-a-Lago. And it is by promising to deliver a great many of these shares that he walked out of House of Kahn, a tony jewelry store on Peruvian Avenue, with $128,000 in diamonds, emeralds, and a gold watch on Christmas Eve 1993. Or at least that is what Adele Kahn, the store matriarch, told the Palm Beach Post in 1994. She said she never received the promised stock. Eventually, she won an $86,000 judgment for the unpaid balance against Greyling in Palm Beach County Circuit Court, though she would never get the money.
Members Service Corp. was a shape-shifting holding company that always claimed to be on the verge of offering some good or service but never quite managed to do it. It had been founded in the late '80s by a used-car salesman, Leon Hooten III, who, after being booted from the company in 1990, went on to run baroque financial schemes predicated on the existence of a fictional micro-nation in the Pacific. (Hooten III died in 1997, a month after Texas regulators shut down his operations.)
Listed on the NASDAQ in 1990, Members Service juiced its stock by claiming to be developing oil fields and, later, synthetic blood, a particularly cruel kind of hype at the height of the AIDS epidemic. When Greyling came on as chairman and majority owner in mid-1993, the firm pivoted to claiming to be an entertainment, hotel, and casino conglomerate in the making.
At exactly the same time, Trump's own, very real entertainment, hotel, and casino conglomerate was in danger of collapse. He reported negative income every year from 1985 to 1994, according to tax documents obtained by the New York Times. He and his companies owed several billion dollars to dozens of creditors. He had personally guaranteed up to a quarter of the debt and at times had as little as a few million dollars on hand. He was nearly broke. In Palm Beach, bank troubles had stalled his plans to convert the 118-room Mar-a-Lago, which he had bought for $7 million in 1985, into a social club.
So it's easy to understand why Trump, at this time, wouldn't want to pay full price for the house next to Mar-a-Lago. It's less clear why Greyling would oblige him.
Greyling purchased the shell company that owned 1094 South Ocean in October 1993. An ad placed by the realtor said the house then sold for $3.95 million. Less than a month later, the sale to Trump was finalized for $1.6 million.
Jeffrey Paine was in a position to know why Trump snagged such a good deal. He was not only the lawyer who represented the husband and wife behind L&V, the shell company that sold the Woodbridge mansion to Greyling, but also the notary who certified Greyling's sale of the property to Trump. "I don't know whether [Greyling] intends to make up some money in another deal or what," Paine told the Miami Herald on November 21, 1993. "All I can say is that we sold our shares [to Greyling] for substantially more than $1.6 million."
Reached today by phone, Paine says he can no longer remember how much of a discount Trump might have received from Greyling. But he calls the sale he notarized "nefarious... Trump and Greyling had something going on." He adds he doesn't know what that "something" might have been.
Trump's broker, Robert Wyner of Barclay's International Realty in Palm Beach, confirmed the house was part of a larger web of dealings between his client and Greyling. According to the Herald, Wyner said Trump was "involved with a 'South African company' in some deals, including the... home, but refused to elaborate."
If Trump knew, he participated in a scheme that at least bears some resemblance to traditional penny-stock fraud.
Here is one way Greyling (whose son Clinton said his father declined to comment for this story) might have recouped a loss. Immediately after the apparent sweetheart sale, Trump entered into dealings with Greyling's Members Service Corporation. To this company, which federal prosecutors would soon portray as a vast platform for predatory pump-and-dump schemes, the future president lent his celebrity and credibility, becoming attached to two of its ventures in particular.
In the first and least of these, representatives of Members Service and Trump talked up a potential takeover of the celebrated 1920s-era Chesterfield Hotel in Palm Beach. On November 6, 1993, just three days after the sale of the mansion next to Mar-a-Lago to Trump, the Herald reported that Members Service had made a $7 million offer for the hotel and that Trump would manage it. Wyner, the broker, would not discuss the future president's plans but told the Herald: "With the recession ending, he feels this is the time to buy in Palm Beach. He likes this town and intends to spend much more time here." A day later, Trump told the Palm Beach Daily News that the Herald article was "totally false" and that "friends" of his were buying the hotel but he wasn't involved. Three days later, he told the Palm Beach Post he was, indeed, in "informal talks" about managing the place.
A Members Service spokesperson told the Herald that Trump was central to the plan. The Chesterfield would become a glittering satellite of Mar-a-Lago, taking in overflow guests of the future social club. Arthur Feher, the company's CEO (Greyling was chairman), told the Herald: "It's no secret Mr. Greyling and Mr. Trump are friends. It's no secret Mr. Trump is putting together a private club at Mar-a-Lago, and it's no secret there are a limited number of rooms there... Keep in mind, though, that nothing has been finalized."
The plan was never finalized. In February, the owners of the Chesterfield sued Members Service for defaulting on the sale (and eventually won a judgment of $250,000).
But the same month, Trump jumped much more enthusiastically into another deal with Members Service. February 3, 1994, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported the future president had paid the firm $320,000 for an option to buy 32 acres of waterfront land in Missouri, where Trump was thinking of putting a "riverboat casino complex."
"We think it is a fantastic piece of property," said Trump, adding the project would be "something truly spectacular." He declined to say where, exactly, the property was located.
A press release from Members Service was sunny. If the future president exercised the option to buy the land, the company would receive an additional $3.2 million from him. That money would be "raised through an initial public offering of equity securities by Trump."
Despite the hoopla, Members Service's stock price by then was in the dumps. It had gone from more than a dollar per share in November 1993 to 1/16 of a dollar at the beginning of February 1994. (Stock prices were then denominated in fractions.) Beginning February 3 and continuing for several days, newspapers listed Members Service's stock as one of most active on the NASDAQ. By the end of a week of trading, it had hit new lows.
A hopeful Greyling told the Palm Beach Post on February 3 that he expected Trump to close on the 32 acres in Missouri "within 60 days." When the paper asked about the identities of the land's owners, the South African responded there were six but he couldn't remember their names. About a week later, the then-mayor of St. Charles, Grace Nichols, told the Post-Dispatch she had met with people who purported to be members of the Trump Organization. She said she had asked them for a map of the future casino complex, but "I haven't gotten one yet."
On February 10, the Post-Dispatch reported, "Land owners, real-estate brokers, and city and county politicians say they have not been able to pin down exactly where the land is." But the Trump Organization persisted. In late February, it submitted a $98 million plan for a casino complex that would include a golf course, a park, and an aquarium, according to the Post-Dispatch. Though the future president's company paid $15,000 when submitting the application to the City of St. Charles, Trump was still "vague on where the casino would be and only would say he [had] an option on 40 acres at I-70 just south of the Blanchette Bridge," the Post-Dispatch reported.
With its acreage thus expanded but no more locatable, the casino complex's application was rejected by the city.
Though there would be no riverboat casino complex, Trump had generated positive publicity for Members Service Corporation. It had become widely known the company was working with America's most famous billionaire. How could it not be legit?
A new Members Service plan emerged in early 1994, when the firm found another valuable partner: the infamous Saudi arms dealer and Iran-contra middleman Adnan Khashoggi. He was brought on to help develop an Orlando theme park called Sportsworld 2000 that would be "bigger than Disney" and promote Middle East reconciliation through soccer, according to a May 1994 story in the Palm Beach Post. Khashoggi would be paid in Members stock while also enjoying a $50,000 expense account.
Like the Chesterfield deal and the Missouri casino development, Sportsworld 2000 never materialized.
Members Service was delisted from the NASDAQ in 1994 and collapsed. Investors lost at least $2 million, and some even gave up their life savings. In October 1995 in U.S. District Court, Greyling was sentenced to six months in prison for immigration violations. In March 1996 in the Middle District of Florida, he was indicted on charges of money laundering and stock fraud. Federal prosecutors alleged Members Service had lured investors through press releases heralding deals that never stood a chance because the company had no money or assets.
To represent him, Greyling hired former O.J. Simpson attorney F. Lee Bailey, who described his client as an "affable, naive" businessman who was "duped" into buying a controlling interest in Members Service.
The proceedings, spanning a month in early 1997 in Orlando, ended in a mistrial. Greyling then quickly pleaded guilty to one count of issuing a false press release in violation of securities law. He was sentenced to time served (he had already spent nearly two years in jail), deported, and banned from entering the United States.
Before Greyling was indicted, but as questions emerged in the local press about his background and finances, Trump distanced himself. "I really don't know him very well," he told the Palm Beach Daily News in June 1994. "I bought a house from him, and the few times I met him, he was a perfect gentleman," Trump said, making Greyling perhaps the only illegal immigrant he's ever liked. He didn't mention having paid Greyling's company $320,000 for an option to buy 32 or 40 "fantastic" acres in Missouri.
Did Trump know the Missouri casino complex would never be built? Did he receive a discount on 1094 South Ocean in exchange for lending his name to Members Service ventures he knew would never bear fruit? The Trump Organization and a lawyer for the president did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
If Trump knew the complex wouldn't succeed, he participated in a scheme that at least bears some resemblance to traditional penny-stock fraud. If he didn't know, he was duped.
In 2018, Trump International Realty was offering 1094 South Ocean — which is now owned by Eric Trump — for $86,000 per month. "Stunning Palm Beach home located adjacent to the exclusive Mar-a-Lago Club," a listing for the property read. "This impeccable residence has fine detailing and finishes with soaring ceilings exuding warmth and elegance throughout. The lush landscaping provides privacy for intimate outdoor entertaining." Hotpads.com, the Zillow-owned real-estate marketplace, notes that 1094 was renting for $44,000 more than the average such property in Palm Beach. In 59 photos, the sparsely decorated home, with randomly placed Italianate touches and decorative columns here and there, looks like Florence by way of Weston. The home has been used by guests who can't be accommodated at Mar-a-Lago, as well as by Eric Trump and his family, under tight security. It went off the market last July.
Today, more than 25 years after the sale of the Woodbridge Road mansion to Trump, many of those involved in the sale of that "stunning Palm Beach home" to the first family are disgraced, under indictment, or dead — excluding the president, of course.
He fled to Mexico rather than attend his sentencing hearing, and died of a heart attack in a Mexico City bathtub.
Greyling settled in Britain. He nearly returned to the States in 2000, when Mary Jo White, then the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, tried to extradite him on a new charge of stock fraud, unrelated to Members Service. Britain rejected the extradition request. The case remains open.
Arthur Feher, the former CEO of Members Service, was convicted in spring 1996 on 27 counts of fraud, money laundering, and obstruction of justice relating to his stewardship of the company. He fled to Mexico rather than attend his sentencing hearing and died of a heart attack in a Mexico City bathtub November 26, 1996.
Robert Wyner, Trump's broker on 1094 South Ocean, was a member of Mar-a-Lago and attended the future president's weddings to Marla Maples and Melania Knauss. His company, Barclay's International Realty (which had no relation to the bank), handled the renting of 1094 on Trump's behalf during the 1990s and 2000s, newspaper listings show.
Barclay's sold two other properties to Trump, others to his sisters Elizabeth Trump Grau and Maryanne Trump Barry, and still another to his ex-wife Ivana. The firm was dissolved shortly after Wyner shot himself in a rented Cadillac in a downtown West Palm Beach parking garage in 2012. Jose Lambiet reported on his now-defunct local news site, GossipExtra, that Wyner had been under investigation by state authorities for possibly embezzling $250,000 from Barclay's and that a convicted con man, Robert C. Wilson, was doing business from Barclay's offices. Lambiet also reported that Wyner was working with Wilson to cobble together "$100 million in investments for a Christian-film production company that ran into legal trouble in California."
When Wyner was reported missing, before his body was found, assistants for Trump told the Palm Beach Daily News that "he did not know Wyner well."