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In Trump Institute, Donald Trump had Florida partners with a record of fraud

In a way, the whole mess began in Florida.

Donald Trump in 2005 had just launched his real estate "university," online classes promising people the keys to his gold-plated lifestyle. But the New Yorker and his partners wanted to expand into live seminars. Lacking experience, they scouted three companies.

Dynatech in Orlando got passed over because it already managed several brands. Whitney Education Group in Cape Coral gave off a bad vibe. "It didn't take too much due diligence to look online and see the line of complaints about their business practices for us to feel uncomfortable," a partner later explained.

That led to Boca Raton and Mike and Irene Milin. Trump Institute was born and, with it, a good measure of the controversy dogging Trump on the presidential campaign trail.

Remarkably, it may have been avoided had the same scrutiny shown with Whitney Education been applied to the Milins.

Longtime operators on the get-rich-quick circuit, the Milins faced fraud and deceptive marketing allegations in numerous states. They settled cases in Texas in 1993 and Florida in 2001, only to see new allegations arise.

The history raises questions about Trump's business acumen — his chief selling point to voters — and illustrates his way of doing business.

• • •

Trump Institute was a licensing deal. He sold his likeness to the Milins, much as with some of the products and hotels that have carried his imprimatur, including the failed Trump Tower Tampa.

For Trump Institute, the businessman appeared in infomercials ("Get off your a--, go out and learn something!") and in other promotions that capitalized on his reputation, which was reaching new heights due to his role on NBC's The Apprentice.

People in cities across the country paid more than $1,000 to attend a "The Donald Trump Way to Wealth Seminar," where they were encouraged to purchase course material and expensive coaching from experts "hand-picked" by Trump.

They were not. And the course material was simplistic, according to interviews and documents, if not outright fraudulent. The New York Times recently reported on how a liberal opposition research group, American Bridge, discovered significant plagiarism by Trump Institute.

In its first full year, 2006, the institute held about 120 seminars in 30 cities, from St. Petersburg to San Diego.

The events promised "Donald Trump's 'secret recipe' for success — a combination of the right knowledge and the right mind set to create unlimited riches. As you'll discover, there are two great ways to create wealth — owning a business and investing in real estate. Donald Trump is a master of both, and his strategies for both have been packed into this seminar."

Trump appeared only in an introductory video, but he got a cut for each seat filled.

In the four years Trump Institute operated out of Boca Raton, complaints to the state streamed in from customers across the country who felt underwhelmed, trapped or simply ripped off.

"PLEASE HELP ME," one man wrote to Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum in 2009. "I was laid off work for the first time in my life and really need this money to support my family. $1,400 is so much money for my family."

The man's wife, Amy Keeler of Louisiana, said in an interview that most of the information was simplistic. "It just wasn't beneficial to us." She called Trump Institute so much that operators knew her by name. Keeler got a refund only after writing emails to the presidents of every Trump-branded golf course and hotel she could find. "I was threatening to go to the news."

A woman from Wellington was so frustrated she wrote to Trump himself, mistakenly thinking he was in control. "Having seen your TV series and knowing your remarkable financial and business acumen, I feel you are also a kind and honorable man," read her letter, forwarded to McCollum's office.

"Mr. Trump, I am an 85-year-old woman living on a fixed, modest income. The monthly payment your organization has been deducting from my bank account is creating an ongoing hardship for me."

One man in 2008 bluntly concluded: "I think this is a big scam."

These and other complaints netted no action from McCollum, who said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times that they never reached his desk. Top staff to his successor, Pam Bondi, heard about complaints and the Milin connection, too. But four days after publicly saying she was considering joining a New York state investigation into Trump University in 2013, Trump made a $25,000 contribution to her political committee. Bondi personally solicited the donation.

Bondi, who has endorsed Trump for president and shared the campaign stage with him, has fought accusations that she should have done something, saying a couple of complaints her office got were about Trump University, not Florida-based Trump Institute.

Still, internal emails show her staff was aware of the link to Trump Institute and the Milins, who worked under various company names, including Business Strategies Group and Xylophone.

Messages left for the Milins were not returned. Two lawyers associated with them said they no longer work for the couple. Trump's campaign and general counsel did not respond to several inquiries.

• • •

Pronounced MY-lin, the couple had been in the get-rich-quick business since the 1980s, controversy never far behind. In 1987, they were sued by producers of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous for making it seem like one of their infomercials was part of the show. Their Information Seminars International, also focused on real estate, drew action from the state of Texas in 1993 for deceptive practices.

They are best known for National Grants Conferences, live seminars that lured people with the promise of "free" government grants. Infomercials featuring the couple said that "hundreds of billions" were available, allowing people to "build wealth," become their own boss, send their children to the best schools and retire happy.

The federal government has deemed these types of claims as scams.

Eventually the couple ended up in Florida, where trouble surfaced again. In 2001, the Florida Attorney General's Office forced National Grants Conferences into an AVC, or assurance of voluntary compliance, to curb questionable marketing practices. The company paid $7,500 to cover the state's investigative costs.

In 2007, more than 30 state attorneys general (but not Florida) warned the Federal Trade Commission that NGC "lacked substantiation for its claims and failed to disclose either what the generally expected performance would be or that the endorsers' experience was atypical, as required."

Misconduct allegations kept coming, and in 2009, Florida investigated violations of the 2001 agreement. The complaints from customers were strikingly similar to those about Trump University, according to records obtained from the state. The case was closed, however, because National Grants Conferences had entered bankruptcy proceedings. Around the same time, Trump Institute shut down.

The Trump Organization said it did not meet high standards, while an attorney for the Milins at the time pointed blame in the other direction.

The Milins keep a low public profile but have a big footprint in politics, making substantial contributions to candidates in both parties over the years, from Chuck Schumer to Marco Rubio, with an emphasis on those who champion Israel.

In 2012, they helped host a fundraiser in Boca Raton for Mitt Romney. After Romney's loss, the Milins lamented President Barack Obama's handling of Iran in an article for Haaretz, a daily newspaper in Israel.

"We worked very hard on sanctions but the president was not at all helpful. He wanted to water things down," said Mike Milin, described as "a real estate developer from Boca Raton."

The article states that the Milins had "taken a long road from 1960s radicals to becoming leading Jewish Republican fundraisers in the state of Florida. Israel, where they emigrated and lived for several years in the 1990s, is their main political passion."

Now they are a problem for Trump, the controversy over his real estate seminars playing out in court and on the campaign trail. Trump has lashed out at critics and said there were many satisfied customers.

Despite filing a complaint with the state in 2009, Orlando developer Tom Harb said in an interview that a Trump instructor "helped me think how to reverse my knowledge from making money on the upswing to make money while the market is in recession … so I made over a million dollars by his reprogramming my knowledge." He did not detail how he made that money.

• • •

The original plan called for Trump to start his online courses via Trump University and get into the live seminars through a licensing deal with an established operator, which turned out to be the Milins and National Grants Conferences. They were "the best in the business" Trump University president Michael Sexton told the Sacramento Bee in 2006.

After learning how to conduct seminars, Trump was to fold the business into the University, which New York regulators forced him to rename. Instead, the two overlapped. Promotional material often bore both names.

"We were both in the market conducting live events at the same time," Sexton said in a 2013 deposition with New York prosecutors.

As complaints grew, a common theme emerged: Customers said they had to harass Trump Institute to get refunds, a process that often took months, or was unsuccessful. "They are using our money to make money," complained an Oregon man who paid nearly $3,300 to attend a seminar in March 2009 on how to buy repossessed homes.

"What do we do now as we know they don't return our calls?" he wrote in a complaint to Florida's attorney general. "It's no wonder that Donald Trump is rich if he treats everyone in this way."

Sheila Roberts of Connecticut was also drawn by Trump, hoping to make extra money in real estate. But the information was underwhelming.

"I went through the material and didn't think it was worth what they were charging," Roberts, 61, said in an interview. She called Trump Institute repeatedly to ask for a refund of about $2,000.

"They kept saying, 'The money is coming, it's coming.' After a while you couldn't even get through on the phone."

It took six months.

The experience hasn't helped her image of Trump. "I don't have a lot of respect for the man," said Roberts, a Republican. But she's voting for him. "I think Hillary Clinton is the worse choice. I think she's crooked as the day is long."

Times researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Alex Leary at aleary@tampabay.com. Follow @learyreports.

In Trump Institute, Donald Trump had Florida partners with a record of fraud 06/30/16 [Last modified: Saturday, July 2, 2016 10:28pm]
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