Donald Trump’s Republican presidential rivals are seizing on fraud allegations made by former students of his Trump University to paint him as a sleazy businessman.
Trump University, a now defunct get-rich-quick set of real estate courses, was never a university — in fact, New York officials pressured Trump to ditch that part of the name. And the courses are now the target of a class-action lawsuit in federal court in San Diego and ongoing legal scrutiny from the New York attorney general, who sued Trump, the program and its president in 2013 for $40 million to repay thousands of former students.
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Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, who are trailing Trump in the polls, used the latest developments as an opening to attack Trump’s character at the Republican debate Thursday night.
Rubio accused Trump of starting “a fake university” that people borrowed $36,000 to attend. “And you know what they got? They got to take a picture with a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump,” Rubio said, echoing the complaints of some former students.
In the lawsuits, former students say they were given lessons that were useless or even illegal and that they were badgered into taking course after expensive course.
After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie spectacularly endorsed Trump at a press conference Friday, Trump dismissed concerns about the class-action lawsuit and his attorneys have long denied any wrongdoing.
“It’s a peanuts case, it’s a very small case,” Trump said. Many students gave their Trump University courses high marks, Trump said, and they’re just looking for their money back. Trump also claimed that “much of the case has already been won.”
But the class action case filed in California in 2010 by former students hasn’t been resolved. No trial date has been set, but Trump’s name has appeared on witness lists for both sides and court records indicate it could come to trial later this year.
“I want you to think about, if this man is the nominee, having the Republican nominee on the stand in court, being cross-examined about whether he committed fraud,” Cruz said during the debate. “You don’t think the mainstream media will go crazy on that?”
Trump University launched in the mid-2000s as an Internet venture owned by Trump. For several years, it also offered weekend classes in hotel ballrooms across the country to teach financial tips. Some students paid more than $30,000 for a chance to learn Trump’s investment magic and participate in mentorship programs, court records show. (Trump also sold Trump University merchandise, according to an archived website, including hats.)
It’s disputed how much Trump was involved in the program’s operation. But he wasn’t entirely removed. In a blog associated with the courses Trump offered everything from his take on why the now-divorced celebrity couple Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey should get a prenuptial agreement to complaints about Judith Miller’s reporting in The New York Times ahead of the 2003 Iraq invasion.
In the grip of the real estate crisis, advertisements for Trump University boasted that students could learn how to make millions from real estate foreclosures and glean insider secrets. One ad tied in Trump’s reality-show success, boasting that Trump University was “the next best thing to being his Apprentice.”
One New York woman, Patricia Rodriguez, said in an affidavit in the New York case that she paid about $9,500 for a tax lien course, research tools software and a real estate class because she was “misled in thinking that I was going to be enrolled in a structured course, such as in a college or university,” she said.
She also mistakenly thought she’d meet Trump.
“At the seminar, Donald Trump’s photograph hung from the entrance of the hotel ballroom, but Mr. Trump was nowhere to be seen. I was looking forward to taking a picture with him personally, not with a cardboard cutout of him, like I ultimately wound up doing,” Rodriguez said.
A single mother and two other people describing themselves as Trump University victims are featured in new ads unveiled Friday by the conservative American Future Fund targeting Trump as a “fraud.”
The San Diego class-action lawsuit alleges the university didn’t resemble the educational experience and mentoring opportunities promised in marketing materials. Students were promised mentoring and apprenticeships and assured they would make back the thousands of dollars they shelled out on Trump University through a robust career in real estate. Such support from real estate gurus was scarce in reality, the plaintiffs allege, and Trump University went so far as to ask students to prepare financial statements that it used to measure how much students could pay for follow-up courses.
The lead plaintiff, former student Tarla Makaeff, enrolled in a three-day workshop for $1,495 called “Fast Track to Foreclosure Training.” She didn’t learn as much as she’d hoped — but Trump University instructors successfully pitched her on a more extensive training called the Trump Gold Program, with a price tag of $34,995.
Like other Trump University students, Makaeff was encouraged to raise her credit limit so she could begin buying property, according to filings. Instead, she wound up using it to buy Trump University courses.
After interest and late fees, Makaeff spent nearly $60,000 on Trump University. She said one of the lessons she learned during her time studying under the real estate mogul wasn’t even legal in the state of California: She posted signs by the highway that listed her phone number and was ordered to take them down by the Orange County district attorney, court records say.
In a counter-claim, Trump University alleged that Makaeff is financially troubled, did little to use her training from Trump University and had been defaming Trump University on the Internet. She also indicated she had positive experiences with Trump University at the time she was enrolled, the claim says.
“It is common sense that Trump University cannot guarantee riches any more than Harvard University can guarantee a Rhodes Scholarship, or MIT can guarantee a Nobel Prize,” the claim reads.
Makaeff recently filed a motion to withdraw herself from the case, saying she is grieving the death of her mother and has developed health problems and anxiety since the case was filed. The last pre-trial conference for the case is set for May.
“I could settle it right now for very little money, but I don’t want to do it out of principle,” Trump said during the Thursday night debate. “The people that took the course all signed — most — many — many signed report cards saying it was fantastic, it was wonderful, it was beautiful.”