Value of Mar-a-Lago disputed in fraud trial

Former President Donald Trump waves to a crowd as he leaves a Commit to Caucus rally, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Ankeny, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)
Former President Donald Trump waves to a crowd as he leaves a Commit to Caucus rally, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Ankeny, Iowa. (AP Photo/Matthew Putney)

Former President Donald Trump's civil business fraud trial turned Tuesday to one of the topics that has vexed him most -- the value of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Fla.

Testifying for Trump's defense, a Florida real estate attorney said the property could be sold as a home, notwithstanding decades-old legal documents in which Trump said he intended to forswear its use as anything but a club. Then a Palm Beach luxury real estate broker testified that he'd value the historic estate at over $1 billion as of 2021.

"It's something breathtaking. It's something amazing to see," broker Lawrence Moens said before showing a glimmering video complete with swelling music, aerial shots of the property at sunrise and sunset and a closing image of an American flag.

His testimony was punctuated by wry remarks. He described a photo of a different part of ritzy Palm Beach as showing "some land, some houses," for instance.

At one point, Moens even briefly answered a personal phone call while on the witness stand: "Dad, I love you, but I've got to get off the phone."

Spanning 17 acres with waterfront on two sides, the Trump estate and social club is his home, a place where the former president and current Republican 2024 front-runner has conducted high-profile meetings while in and out of office, and the spot where federal special counsel Jack Smith alleges he improperly stashed classified documents, which Trump denies.

Mar-a-Lago also is a key element of the current New York civil case, along with Trump's feelings about the place.

State Attorney General Letitia James' lawsuit claims that the ex-president and his company deceived lenders and others by giving them financial statements that greatly overstated the values of some of his prime assets, including Mar-a-Lago.

Judge Arthur Engoron, in a pretrial ruling declaring that Trump and his company engaged in fraud, found that he exaggerated Mar-a-Lago's worth by as much as 2,300%, compared with the Palm Beach County tax appraiser's valuations. They ranged from $18 million to $28 million.

Trump denies any wrongdoing, saying that his financial statements actually undervalued his assets and were accompanied by disclaimers that wipe away liability for any mistakes.

His frequent complaints about the case have often spotlighted the claims about Mar-a-Lago, one of the holdings he called "the Mona Lisas of properties" during pretrial questioning. As recently as last Friday, Trump vented on his Truth Social platform that the judge and James "falsified the value of Mar-a-Lago."

The Palm Beach County tax assessment that the judge mentioned was based on Mar-a-Lago's annual net operating income as a club, not on its resale value as a home or on its reconstruction cost. The county uses the operating-income method to value other social clubs, and the outcome carries tax benefits for Trump -- a $602,000 property tax bill this year, compared with about $18 million if Mar-a-Lago were assessed at $1 billion.

In a 2002 agreement with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the club and Trump signed over "any and all of their rights to develop the property for any usage other than club usage."

Yet when pulling information together for Trump's annual financial statements, his former corporate controller Jeffrey McConney valued Mar-a-Lago club as though the property could be sold as a private home. The statements pegged it as high as $612 million in 2021.

James said that those values ignored the agreement with the National Trust. The attorney general, a Democrat, maintains that Trump should have valued Mar-a-Lago by its operating income, as the county does.

Some Palm Beach luxury real estate agents have told The Associated Press that the property would sell for $300 million to $600 million, and possibly $1 billion or more if it sparked a bidding war among wealthy contenders.

So said Moens, a longtime Mar-a-Lago club member who has said he once sold another Palm Beach property on Trump's behalf.

In a pretrial report, Moens pegged Mar-a-Lago's 2021 value at more than $1 billion, saying it would be an "unparalleled" family compound for a rarefied cadre of the world's financial elite.

Asked during pretrial questioning whom he meant, Moens said he could "dream up anyone from Elon Musk to Bill Gates" and "kings, emperors, heads of state."

The trial had been due to continue today with a second round of testimony from the former president's son Eric Trump, an executive vice president at his father's company. But defense lawyers decided they didn't need to bring back the son, who's also a defendant in the case.

  photo  FILE - An aerial view of former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate is seen Aug. 10, 2022, in Palm Beach, Fla. Former President Donald Trumps civil business fraud trial has turned to one of the topics that has vexed him most — the disputed value of his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. Palm Beach luxury real estate broker Lawrence Moens took the stand for Trump's defense Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

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