It looks like Donald Trump’s tax shenanigans include a $21 million tax break based on a shady assessment of the value of property involved in a conservation easement, The Washington Post reports. Trump bought the Seven Springs estate, complete with a 60-room mansion, for $7.5 million in 1995. He wanted to make money on it. In the following years, he made several attempts to develop the property—into a golf course, a subdivision, a smaller subdivision—but failed each time, running into local opposition and permitting difficulties.
In 2015, Trump gave up and instead got a conservation easement, signing an agreement with the North American Land Trust to preserve 158 acres of the property. That seems to have been a valid move—the forested property abuts a nature preserve. But the $56.5 million appraisal Trump got on the property, which turned into that $21 million tax break, is suspect, and New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating, with Eric Trump having been deposed on Monday.
The appraisal, done by Cushman & Wakefield, a company with ties to Trump including offices in one of his buildings, assessed the property’s value based on the idea that it could be divided into 24 parcels selling at $2.1 million apiece, with the value of the preserved land being zero. This ignored the fact that Trump had repeatedly tried and failed to develop the property, calling into question the possibility of dividing it and selling it, let alone at that price. And Cushman & Wakefield faced pressure from a Trump lawyer, Sheri Dillon, as the firm worked on the appraisal. Dillon was “trying to convince us to restore” that $2.1 million per parcel valuation, one appraiser wrote in an email at the time.
“This is not a good appraisal, and it’s misleading, and it’s thin as all get out,” one independent appraiser told the Post. “What you get is appraised values for these 24 hypothetical lots that appear to be much higher than they ought to be.” Another expert did call the Cushman & Wakefield appraisal “competent.” But “The theme throughout this appraisal is: There is very little actual work done to collect data and analyze specific data,” still another said. “It’s a lot of arm-waving and reference to national surveys.”
So, yes, Trump deserved some form of tax break for the conservation easement. But $21 million looks like a biiiiig stretch. At other times, Trump has also saved on taxes on the property by claiming it as an investment property, despite the fact that the Trump Organization website describes it as “a retreat for the Trump family.”
Trump made a bad investment. Bought a property that he thought he could develop and he couldn’t. But what he did then was to press for and take more than he deserved even under tax rules that are extremely forgiving to people like him. Now, Tish James is coming for him, which has to be a frightening prospect. I can’t wait for the outcome.