Trump and his father, real estate developer Fred Trump, used some accounting techniques that look a lot like civil tax fraud. If it is, that could lead to payments of up to 75 percent of the amount underpaid. Trump and his siblings could be forced to surrender, or “disgorge,” many millions of dollars — perhaps hundreds of millions — in back taxes, fines and penalties to New York state alone.
The Times describes decades of what is politely called “creative accounting.” Though the means were complicated, the purpose wasn’t: Fred transferred $1 billion to his children, The Times estimates, and paid roughly 5 percent in estate taxes instead of the then-standard 55 percent.
How did they do this? First, the Trumps dramatically undervalued their property, which low-balled the amount of tax they had to pay. They also allegedly devised a whole other kind of fraud, according to The Times, padding virtually all maintenance invoices, so that Fred could list payments to his children as business expenses instead of taxable gifts.
These inflated bills also allowed the Trumps to increase the rents that they charged the low-income tenants in their government-subsidized housing developments. Tenants who could ill afford the rent hikes.
Just as serious — if not qualifying as civil tax fraud — is the fraud Donald Trump perpetrated on the American public. As a stripling golden-haired playboy, Trump presented his father’s wealth as his own. He then used this claim to create an inflated impression of his own success and, ultimately, made it the basis of his presidential campaign.
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Something about having a large amount of money causes many wealthy people to decide the government shouldn’t get any of it. Tax advisers routinely help clients toward this goal — mainly in ways that are legal. They see to it that their clients make annual gifts to their children and grandchildren up to the amounts exempt from gift taxes. When the clients pass to their eternal reward, these amounts are then excluded when tallying estate taxes.
Something about having a large amount of money causes many wealthy people to decide the government shouldn’t get any of it.
There are many other ways to avoid paying the government. Tax advisers, for example, see to it that clients, instead of making gifts to family members for tuition, pay the schools directly. The advisers make sure that clients make maximum use of their tax loss “carryforwards,” so that the losses are spread over future years — and offset any future gains.
And that’s not counting the techniques that will put clients under the Internal Revenue Service microscope, like offshore investments and family limited partnerships. Advisers sometimes devise extremely sophisticated write-offs. Trump’s sound relatively simple.
Real estate has unique tax rules since, like art, it has to be appraised. You can’t definitively say what a building on East 57th Street in Manhattan is worth in the same way that you can quote the price of a share of IBM stock. The appraisal will determine the property’s value and, thus, the taxes you owe on your ownership and transfer of the property.
The IRS tries to ensure these appraisals are independent. But you can only go so far. The Trumps, according to The Times account, got themselves an extraordinarily friendly appraiser.
Another tactic they relied on involves control of the partnerships through which real estate is often owned. When you determine the value of an interest in a partnership, the interest is worth less — it’s valued at a discount — if it comes without control. The Trumps arranged ownership of their properties so that Fred got the discount. Because his interests in his properties were assigned a lower value, he paid less tax on it.
There were reportedly other Trump tax reduction techniques. Fred Trump didn’t just put his children on his payroll so he could claim his payments to them as business expenses. He also made his children the holders of his property mortgages, rather than working with conventional lenders. His mortgage payments on his buildings went to his kids.
In addition, instead of transferring property interests openly to his children, he transferred them to trusts that covertly benefited them. He extended loans, especially loans to Donald, that were never repaid. He sold property to Donald at a price that made the property a gift.
There are parts of this con job for which our president will never be called to account. No one will go to jail for the tax schemes.
The other long con also masked Fred’s help to his children. He was regularly spending large sums buying goods and services from contractors to maintain and improve his properties. So he set up a company, All County Building Supply & Maintenance, controlled by his children. Fred would pay All County instead of paying the contractors directly. But the All County’s invoices to Fred were padded by 20 percent or more. The markups went to the Trump children.
There are parts of this apparent con job for which our president will never be called to account. No one will go to jail for the tax schemes. Fred died in 1999, while Donald and his siblings sold off the bulk of Fred’s empire in 2004. Both dates are well outside the criminal statutes of limitations. As for the politics, Trump’s partisans will likely see his cheating on taxes as just another sign of his business acumen and will view the fact that he inflated his worth as evidence of his branding genius.
Still, though the work of tax investigators, like the mills of God, may grind slowly, they grind exceedingly small. Whether or not the IRS is inclined to go after the Trumps, the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, bless its progressive soul, is “vigorously pursuing all appropriate avenues of investigation.”
Between the tax investigation and the state’s ongoing actions against the Trump Foundation, you can bet that the Trumps will wish they had sought their real estate fortunes anywhere except the liberal precincts of New York.
During one of the political scandals that roiled New York City in the 1990s, around the time when Fred and Donald were working their plans, a cynical friend explained to me that some people would survive the investigations while some would not. Resorting to Yiddish, he said, “The gonovim” — the thieves — “will probably be all right; but the hazerim,” the pigs, ”are done for.”
The Trumps may well pay for all the cleverness that created the Donald.
Suzanne Garment, a lawyer, is the author of “Scandal: The Culture of Mistrust in American Politics.” Her husband Leonard Garment was acting special counsel to President Richard Nixon for the last two years of his presidency.