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Trump University advice to students posed legal risks: Experts

Trump University students say they were scammed. They may also have been advised to commit potentially illegal actions by the now-defunct real estate investment course. A detailed review by CNBC and legal experts of the Trump University curriculum shows written advice to students, who paid upward of $36,000 to attend, could have placed students in violation of several state and national real estate and investment laws.

Active from 2005–2010, Trump University was shut down amid questions surrounding its legitimacy and currently faces two class-action lawsuits and a third suit brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. Donald Trump is a named defendant alongside the shuttered Trump University, also known as Trump Entrepreneur Initiative.

The curriculum, presented in glossy binders and workbooks, shows that some of the lessons taught and advice given regarding real estate transactions could actually be illegal in several states.

Over the course of several months, we asked more than half a dozen real estate attorneys and experts across the country, from Florida to Oregon to California to New York, to weigh in on the content within the curriculum chapters. In several instances, they said, the advice went against the law in their respective states.

At the most basic level, the curriculum was not designed to conform to the specific requirements of real estate investing, which differ from state to state. Instead, it was, as Trump Organization lawyer Jill Martin told CNBC during a brief phone call, a "national level" curriculum.

Emails to the Trump campaign were referred to the Trump Organization, though it is not a named defendant in the lawsuits. The Trump campaign did not respond to specific questions about the curriculum and potential legal violations. Martin, vice president and assistant general counsel, litigation and employment at The Trump Organization, emphasized that the courses were really built around the live seminars in which she said students were told to consult with local real estate attorneys.

Donald Trump (background) speaks at a news conference announcing the establishment of Trump University, on May 23, 2005, in New York City.
Getty Images
Donald Trump (background) speaks at a news conference announcing the establishment of Trump University, on May 23, 2005, in New York City.

Several students with whom CNBC spoke, though, disagreed with Martin's take on how much emphasis was placed on learning the real estate laws in whichever state the student planned to engage in such transactions.

Jeffrey Tufenkian, a former Trump University student who is part of both class-action lawsuits against the university and whose handwritten notes CNBC reviewed, told CNBC, "When attorneys and other experienced real estate advisors raised red flags about the legality of techniques Trump University people were saying we should use, I knew we had been cheated."

Tufenkian, who attended several local real estate investor meetings, said, "I heard from attorneys who said techniques Trump University taught were illegal."

In response to CNBC's questions, Jill Martin did not address each potential violation CNBC inquired about, but instead provided this document, highlighting the disclaimers that she said were given to students upon enrollment — before they actually had received any of the binders or workbooks.

Former students, however, showed us disclaimer forms signed upon enrollment that were different from the one Martin provided:

Schneiderman, currently suing Trump on behalf of thousands of former Trump University students who allege misrepresentations made by the real estate education venture in its student recruitment efforts, had also received the same disclaimer forms CNBC got from other students, but not the one Martin sent over.

An AG spokesman told CNBC that "we would've expected to see those disclaimers by this point, and Trump's team has had ample opportunity to provide them." The spokesman said the forms were irrelevant, anyway, because "the court rejected their argument that the disclaimers protected them from liability."

Some students argue that the fine print only serves to obscure the legal issues in the actual curriculum. "Having people sign a liability form does not make up for their techniques being illegal to use," Tufenkian said.

Finding 'motivated' sellers

The Trump University workbook tells students that the market is "flooded with deals. You just have to learn how to find them."

To find those deals, the curriculum tells students to seek out "motivated sellers."

According to Trump University, motivated sellers are those who may be having tenant problems, going through a divorce, having health issues or who have recently lost a job, among other things.

Several experts we spoke to took issue with that advice, because it could potentially backfire on the Trump University student.

Florida-based real estate attorney Sherri DeWitt of DeWitt Law told CNBC: "That's a red flag, because if you take advantage of somebody in a distressed situation and … the deal goes bad, that person can say that they were coerced or they were distressed or weren't fully informed of the circumstances."

New York-based real estate attorney Craig Delsack agreed. "You don't want a motivated seller to all of a sudden say I did this deal under duress. That's a claim that someone could say I was under duress when I sold this; I didn't know what I was doing."

Richard Uffelman, an Oregon-based real estate attorney who has been practicing for more than 50 years, told CNBC that the manuals instruct to target "the naïve owner of property, somebody with what we call distressed properties."

He continued, "Those are the people who are gonna sell. Those are the people who would not get the consultation with an attorney or the consultation with a real estate agent."

In terms of the workbooks in general, Uffelman told CNBC that "the manual is very oversimplified."

Targeting people under duress is not a surprising tactic for Trump University. The Trump University playbook, the document that instructed employees on how to recruit students, recommends considering the following characteristics when targeting prospective students: "Are they a single parent of three children that may need money for food? Or are they a middle-aged commuter that is tired of traveling for 2 hours to work each day?"


If the prospective student showed hesitation in signing up and paying for the seminars, Trump U instructors were told to say the following to convince them otherwise: "Do you like living paycheck to paycheck? Do you like just getting by in life? Do you enjoy seeing everyone else but yourself in their dream houses and driving their dreams cars with huge checking accounts?"

Trump's campaign did not respond to our request for comment regarding the playbook.

Wholesaling without having a license

Once students find a homeowner who needs to sell and sell quickly, the workbook gives options as to what kind of deal Trump University students should engage in.

In a section that details wholesaling, the curriculum suggests that one can market and sell someone else's property without actually owning it by having the contract assigned, which the university claims is known as an equitable interest in the property.

"Trump's advice says that once you make a deposit on property, you have an equitable interest in the property and that must make you an owner and therefore you can sell, and that's not accurate," said Oregon lawyer Uffelman.

"It's against Oregon law to market property that you don't own, unless of course you're a real estate agent and that's what real estate agents do," Uffelman told CNBC.

Florida attorney Sherri DeWitt cautioned against the wholesaling advice found in the Trump workbooks as well.

"Chapter 475 of the Florida Statutes defines what a broker is. A lot of the recommendations that he makes in the wholesaling section could potentially fall within the definition of broker, which would mean in order to do them, you would have to, in the state of Florida, you would need a broker's license. And he [Trump] does not tell people that."

Oregon-based attorney Thomas Sullivan said the Trump advice on wholesaling is open to interpretation rather than clearly illegal; however, the advice could backfire on a Trump University student if the deal to sell the property to a third party goes south. "If you sign a deal to sell property to another and then you are unable to sell to that person, then you are opening yourself up to potential liability," Sullivan said.

California real estate attorney Bruce Greene said, "Proper disclosures would have to be presented to make sure no representations are made that you own the property at the time when you actually don't. … Every state has their own laws -- -they're marketing stuff that will work anywhere and everywhere, and it won't." But Greene didn't declare the advice to be illegal.

Another Florida-based real estate attorney, Stephen Hachey, who also analyzed the curriculum, told CNBC that the chapter on wholesaling encouraged students to do things he would never advise his clients.

Potential securities violations

Class-action lawsuits as well as interviews with former students allege that Trump University instructors and employees encouraged people who could not afford Trump University to pay for courses by increasing their credit limits.

So where would Trump University students then get the money to buy real estate and actually start investing?

A solution found in one of the workbooks was "OPM," which is short for "other people's money."

It says to go out and find investors that have cash. Specifically: "The investors you find don't have to be in real estate, they can be doctors, lawyers, accountants, people in the stock market, or someone that has cash and would like to invest in something."

"If someone is soliciting funds from a doctor to invest in his or her company and that doctor is not involved in the business, then that would probably be an investment which requires the person soliciting the funds to give full, complete, truthful disclosure of all material facts," said New York-based real estate attorney Delsack. "Not only does the SEC govern securities and investments, but each state has its own laws regarding soliciting funds within such state (also known as "blue sky" laws)."

DeWitt was also surprised that there were no disclaimers written specifically for that chapter, telling CNBC, "It is going to depend on how many investors there are and the nature of the investment." She explained, "If, for example, you had two or more investors investing in two or more properties, that may be a red flag to me to at least investigate and see whether or not you're in compliance with the securities laws."

Oregon-based real estate attorney Richard Uffelman said he has personally represented clients who were prosecuted for not disclosing some of the same things the Trump manuals advised.

"If I come up with a packaged deal where I do all the activity and you're merely a passive investor, I've sold you a security in Oregon. I've had clients who have been prosecuted by the Oregon securities division for just that."

"Some people had their marriages gone to shambles because they mortgaged their houses in order to pay for the tuition for Trump University. Other people used equity loans on their houses and they lost their houses and they’re never going to be made completely whole." -Bob Guillo, former student of Trump University

The Trump Organization told CNBC that during live courses, students were repeatedly told to build teams that included lawyers.

In response to the lawsuits, the Trump Organization has said that they have no substance and that "Trump University was a professionally run company which provided students with a valuable and substantive education and the tools to succeed in business and real estate."

When asked whether or not the live seminars included more details about all of these stipulations and potential violations, Bob Guillo, a former student who is now part of class-action lawsuits against Trump University, said, "Absolutely not. They were PowerPoint presentations based upon the binders."

Trump Organization lawyer Jill Martin put CNBC in touch with two students who had a more positive experience at Trump University.

Nicholas Perioux, who had attended a weekend seminar in 2008 and spent about $1500 total, told CNBC that he opted out of the class-action lawsuit in 2010 because he benefited from that seminar.

"The information was valid, and it was up to you to decide what to do with this information," he told CNBC. "I can't speak for anyone else, but I know I had a good experience, and I'm doing well in real estate now."

But Guillo said, for those who feel they'd been ripped off, it's more than just about getting their money back.

"Some people had their marriages gone to shambles because they mortgaged their houses in order to pay for the tuition for Trump University," he said. "Other people used equity loans on their houses and they lost their houses and they're never going to be made completely whole."