When Crain’s exposed Trump’s (lack of) wealth
After Attorney General Letitia James accused Donald Trump of “staggering” fraud, Maggie Haberman of The New York Times tweeted that the former president has long tried to avoid the day when a prosecutor told the world that he’s worth less than claimed.
For a long time people suspected that Trump’s claims of vast wealth were fantasy, but those who knew weren’t saying or their lips were sealed because of legal settlements. So I was mighty pleased to poke an early hole in Trump’s billionaire claims. The 2016 story was the most explosive scoop of my career.
Of course I’m pleased to recount how it happened.
Journalists digging through Trump’s extremely limited public financial records never examined his property tax bills. Those are public records in the city and in May 2016 a Crain’s editor, Peter Green, said we should take a look. Real estate reporter Joe Anuta used the city database Acris to translate Trump’s address in Trump Tower into the block and lot codes used for tax purposes. Tap those code numbers into the Department of Finance website and, voila, we had many years’ worth of Trump’s property tax bills.
At first glance they didn’t look interesting. Trump paid $175,000 a year in property taxes for his penthouse, but he’s really rich, right? But the key to investigative reporting is to turn every page, and on closer look I saw something strange: Trump received a $302 tax credit under the STAR program.
STAR stands for the New York State School Tax Relief program. To qualify, you must do two things. First, you must ask for the credit. Second, your household adjusted gross income must be less than $500,000 a year. Trump passed both those tests and did so for years.
How did an alleged billionaire get a tax break for middle-class New Yorkers? I emailed Hope Hicks, who had pitched Eric Trump to be on Crain’s 40 Under 40 list. (Unsuccessfully, because we couldn’t figure out what Eric did.) Hicks passed along my question, and a few hours later I got a call from Trump flak Corey Lewandowski, screaming as if he’d stepped on a rusty nail.
The city made a mistake, he bellowed, Mr. Trump did not ask for the STAR credit. I asked a city spokesperson; no, they didn’t make a mistake.
A few weeks later Trump said he didn’t want the tax break anymore.
Shortly before the 2016 Republican convention, I asked Trump how he got the STAR credit. Charming Donald gave way to defensive Donald and he insisted he had no idea what happened, maybe he’d heard something, maybe I wrote something, but there were deductions he was entitled to.
“You’ll figure it out, OK?” he said. “Take care of yourself.” Then he hung up.
Looks like the New York attorney general figured it out.