They Gave Their Life Savings to Trump, and Got Nothing

When Don Trump declares he’s worth some improbable, unprovable amount, a big part of that inflated value is the dollar figure that Trump assigns to his magical name. By sticking these gold-plated letters on items both large and small, Trump has established a brand, and while it’s easy to make fun of his self-aggrandizing, he’s spent decades making the association between “Trump” and a sort of generic luxury. This season may have made public Trump’s erratic, hateful, and basically vile nature. However, that wasn’t so clear to people who were previously lured to invest in projectsby that carefully tended name.

When Stephenee Simms heard in 2006 that Donald Trump was building condo towers in Baja, the lure of a posh weekend getaway on the rustic coast just south of Tijuana was hard to resist.

Simms, then an aerospace purchasing agent living in Canoga Park, said she used her life savings to pay a deposit of just over $50,000 for unit No. 602, a one-bedroom overlooking the Pacific.

The unit Simms purchased was one of 250 sold for the Trump Ocean Resort. The brochures, which featured not just the Trump name, but a smiling image of Trump, promised the sort of pampered get-away location that many people dream of owning. The Trump Ocean Resort sold well, pulling in over $32 million in deposits for the people who expected to soon relax by the pool or stroll along the beach.

What they got was what Trump delivers all too often: nothing. Nothing at all. In 2009, with the world real estate market in decline, Trump and his partners simply walked away from the project.

The Trump Baja fiasco fits a pattern in the Republican presidential candidate’s business record. Over decades of building a business empire in real estate, casino gaming, golf resorts, reality television and the sale of clothing and other merchandise, Trump has left a long trail of angry customers and vendors who accused him in court of cheating them.

After the fact, Trump claimed to have nothing to do with the project. He has simply … lent it that oh-so-valuable name. There was no doubt about it’s value at the time.

As the Trumps and their partners promoted the condos with sleek brochures and what they called “VIP” cocktail receptions in San Diego County, they often left the impression — or said outright — that Trump was one of the developers. Their marketing team determined that the Trump name was the No. 1 draw for buyers, according to documents that surfaced in the lawsuit.

The ability of Donald Trump’s name to lend a veneer of reality to even the shakiest deals, has left buyers holding the bag for Trump properties across the country and out of it.

Investors in these faux developments often got more than just Trump on a video or brochure. They got soirees at which Trump, or his children, appeared to reassure them about the quality of the development, the wisdom of their choice. And even if Trump’s commitment to a project was exactly one paycheck deep, it didn’t look that way to investors.

Further buttressing buyers’ belief that Trump was one of the developers, not just a brand name, Trump personally signed an August 2007 letter to condo buyers that identified him as exactly that. 

What Trump took was $500,000 pay day for schmoozing and luring investors with stock photos and canned quotes. Then he washed his orange hands of the whole deal, claiming no responsibility when the developer neither built a single unit nor offered a penny in refunds.

Trump’s lawyer claimed that people like Simms had an opportunity to sue Trump, but didn’t. So they clearly didn’t blame him.

Soon after losing her deposit, [Simms] and everyone else at the aerospace office where she worked in Westlake Village were laid off. Her condo in Canoga Park went into foreclosure. When lawyers in the fraud suit invited her to join the case, she had no money to take part.

“No savings, 401K, home equity, job, nothing,” she wrote to them in an April 2010 letter.

That’s what Trump leaves behind. Nothing.

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