Years before President Donald Trump embarked on a campaign to oust Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro, the real estate mogul’s business was selling condominiums to the strongman’s supporters.
At least half a dozen Venezuelans linked to either Maduro or his predecessor, dictator Hugo Chavez, purchased Trump condos in New York City and South Florida prior to Trump becoming president, according to property records. Several of the individuals faced serious allegations of — and even pleaded guilty to — the type of financial fraud in Venezuela that Trump now regularly decries.
While the sales themselves weren’t illegal, the buyers’ backgrounds and purchase methods made the transactions suspicious, according to financial fraud experts. They noted that many of the purchases were made above the apparent market value, fully in cash or using shell companies to obscure identities — all potential signs of money laundering, the experts said.
The sales have raised questions about whether some of these Venezuelan purchasers were buying Trump properties in order to store ill-gotten gains offshore — an issue Trump as president has vowed to address.
“Millions of Venezuelans are starving and suffering while a small handful at the top of the Maduro regime plunder the nation into poverty and into death,” he said in a February speech in Miami. “We know who they are, and we know where they keep the billions of dollars that they have stolen.”
The purchases are yet another example of Trump’s long, complex — and often hidden — foreign business record gaining new scrutiny and relevance because of his presidency. Some instances have promoted fears that Trump is going easy on foreign leaders because of his personal business interests. Other cases have revealed the head-spinning nature of a freewheeling businessman suddenly having to lead the U.S. against former business partners.
And some have led to concerns that Trump properties were being used to launder money — a charge the company denies. In particular, Trump has faced questions about his business ties to the Russian elite, given the tens of millions of dollars they have invested in Trump properties.
Ethics watchdogs and Democrats say the president’s refusal to release his tax returns or divest from his business empire only fuel suspicion around such foreign purchases.
“The American people deserve to know that the president of the United States is working in their best interest and that decisions made by the president — at home and abroad — are not affected by personal financial interests,” said Sen. Tom Carper, (D-Del.), who introduced a bill that would require the president to disclose and divest any potential financial conflicts of interest.
The Trump Organization’s deals with wealthy Venezuelans is the latest of these situations to come to the attention of Trump’s critics.
In recent months, Trump has made toppling Maduro a signature piece of his foreign policy platform — a policy that particularly resonates in Florida, an all-important swing state with a sizeable anti-Maduro Venezuelan-American population.
He recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó in January as Venezuelan’s legitimate interim president, accusing Maduro of rigging his last electoral victory. And he has since pressured Maduro and his associates with severe economic sanctions, while floating the possibility of military action.
But prior to Trump becoming president, his sprawling real estate ventures sold properties to numerous wealthy Venezuelans with government connections, according to a POLITICO examination of property records, court documents and Spanish language media reports compiled by the left-leaning advocacy group American Bridge 21st Century, which conducts opposition research on Republicans and is backed by major Democratic donors. POLITICO independently verified all relevant property records and court documents.
Although the Trump Organization only owned the New York properties — it licensed its brand to the Florida developments — the company was helped by all the condo sales. It also received a licensing fee for at least two of these Venezuelan purchases, because they were the original sale of the property.
The White House didn’t return a request for comment and, as a matter of practice, doesn’t comment on Trump Organization business. The Trump Organization, the company comprised of about 500 businesses owned by the president and now run by his adult sons, did not respond to a request for comment.
The company, some would argue, has done all that is legally required. In the United States, unlike in other countries, real estate professionals are exempt from adopting anti-money laundering programs that could identify suspicious buyers.
“The result is that real estate agents have no legal obligation to screen their clients for signs of money laundering, so they don’t,” said Elise Bean, former staff director of a Senate subcommittee that investigated money laundering.
One of the most prominent Venezuelan purchasers of Trump condos is Moris Beracha, a businessman who had ties to the Venezuelan government, serving as a former adviser to one of Chavez’s top deputies, Finance Minister Rafael Isea.
Beracha was described in a 2012 lawsuit as “one of the wealthiest people in Venezuela with significant and uncommon access to Venezuelan government officials.” The suit accused Beracha of receiving money as part of a $500 million Ponzi scheme, and also of bribing an official with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA. It was eventually settled and Beracha has never been convicted of a crime. His lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.
Beracha bought three Trump condos in New York and Florida. According to property records, he was the original buyer of a Trump World Tower unit in 2002 and it was Trump himself who signed the deed corresponding to his purchase. He later sold it for $3 million to a shell company, but according to the lawsuit, Beracha was the beneficial owner of that shell company. Beracha later bought another Trump World Tower unit for $5.2 million in 2007 through a shell company.
Another shell company that listed Beracha as its sole director purchased a Trump Palace unit on Sunny Isles Beach for $3.6 million in 2008, according to the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser. The purchase was likely made in cash because no corresponding mortgage document was listed. The lawsuit indicated that both shell companies owned the Trump World Tower units. Beracha still owns the two New York properties.
Roberto Rincon, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to bribing officials at Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, also acquired a Trump condo in Florida. A Delaware shell company, which is linked to Rincon through renovation permits and property tax records, paid $1.7 million in August 2011 for a condo in Trump Tower III, well above the $1.3 million the apartment was assessed at in 2012, the oldest information available online, according to the Miami-Dade Property Appraiser. It was likely a cash sale, since no mortgage was listed. Rincon’s attorney, Sam Louis, said his client was given the condo by a contractor who owed him money. Rincon still owns the property.
And Ronald Sanchez, the brother of Venezuela’s national superintendent of securities under Chavez, bought a Trump condo in Florida. A horse racing stable he owned, called Rontos Racing Stable, paid $625,000 in July 2011 for a condo in Trump Tower III in Sunny Isles Beach in Florida — another assumed cash since a mortgage document does not appear. Sanchez was accused in an FBI complaint of being involved in an extortion scheme in which one official was charged. Sanchez could not be reached for comment.
Other Venezuelan purchasers include Juan Montes, a former corporate manager of finance and investments at PDVSA, which the Treasury Department called a “vehicle of corruption” for Maduro when the Trump administration sanctioned the company this year. Notably, Montes is the PDVSA official Beracha was accused of bribing.
Montes was sued in a separate lawsuit — eventually dismissed — that alleged he also received money as part of the $500 million Ponzi scheme. The 2012 lawsuit also said Montes lived in Sunny Isles Beach. A Marshall Islands shell company connected to a Montes business associate purchased a Trump Palace in Sunny Isles Beach in Florida for $1.95 million in April 2008. The shell company still owns the property, which was likely bought in cash given the lack of mortgage documentation. A current lawyer for Montes could not be reached.
Ruben Halfen was another purchaser of Trump-branded properties. Halfen founded Inelectra, an engineering and construction firm that was awarded major contracts by both PDVSA and the state-owned power company, another firm accused of corruption and mismanagement.
A shell company that lists Halfen’s name on corporate records paid $5.1 million — likely in cash because the deed stated it lacked a mortgage — for a condo at Trump International Hotel & Tower in New York in July 2008, according to the New York Department of Finance. The shell company appears to have sold the property to another shell company that lists Ricardo Halfen on corporate records. Neither Halfen could be reached for comment.
To Trump’s critics, the purchases could be a sign that the powerful Venezuelans the Trump administration is trying to defang have also benefited from purchasing Trump properties.
“Our research continues to reveal a disturbing pattern of ties between the president’s businesses and deeply corrupt foreign governments and figures from around the world,” said Jeb Fain, communications director at the Trump War Room at American Bridge 21st Century.
Trump Organization officials have previously said that they primarily focus on licensing and management, not sales or development, meaning the company would not be involved in who was buying the condos.
But there are some properties that the Trump Organization has managed, including at least one that specifically catered to Venezuelans. The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama, for instance, identified Venezuela as one of the club’s “main feeding countries,” according to court documents. A marketing firm launched a campaign to find Venezuelan buyers for the company, and it bought ads in Venezuelan magazines.
After Trump won the 2016 election, he refused to fully separate from his company. Although he placed his holdings in a trust, he can receive money at any time without the public’s knowledge and retains the authority to revoke the trust.
He earned at least $434 million and had assets valued at more than $1.38 billion in 2018, according to his most recent financial disclosure statement filed with the government in May. But many details are unknown as he has refused to release his tax returns and his business deals are private.
“When the president of the United States is in business with criminals overseas, it puts our entire country at risk,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a former U.S. attorney and attorney general of Connecticut.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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