Trump's tax troubles: More than 100 lawsuits, disputes, tied to companies

Nick Penzenstadler and David McKay Wilson

While Donald J. Trump refuses to release his federal tax returns, saying his tax rate is "none of your business," a USA TODAY analysis found Trump's businesses have been involved in at least 100 lawsuits and other disputes related to unpaid taxes or how much tax his businesses owe.

Trump's companies have been engaged in battles over taxes almost every year from the late 1980s until as recently as March, the analysis of court cases, property records, and other documents across the country shows. At least five Trump companies were issued warrants totaling more than $13,000 for late or unpaid taxes in New York state just since Trump declared his candidacy in June 2015, according to state records. This spring, as Trump flew to campaign rallies around the country aboard his trademark private jet, the state of New York filed a tax warrant to try to collect $8,578 in unpaid taxes from the Trump-owned company that owns the Boeing 757. The company has since paid that tax bill.

More from USA Today:
Donald Trump hits Bill Clinton with old rape allegation
Trump pulls ahead of Clinton in new national poll
Trump invests in the same companies he bashes

As recently as last week, Trump said he was "willing to pay more" taxes personally and that "taxes for the rich will go up somewhat" if he becomes president. But the lawsuits and other tax-related disputes show a different reality for his businesses. They illustrate a pattern of systematically disputing tax bills, arguing for lower property assessments, and in some cases not paying taxes until the government takes additional action. At least three dozen times, Trump companies' unpaid tax bills have forced the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to go to local courts to get liens against his properties to try to collect overdue bills. New Jersey also had to go to court for a lien to collect a Trump company's unpaid tax bill. Eventually, those disputes were resolved, and his companies paid some amount of taxes.

Donald Trump
Carlos Barria | Reuters

The disputes surrounding Trump's business taxes are uncharted territory for the presidential nominee of a major party. The GOP's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, also had extensive business interests as the leader of a private-equity fund. But Trump has a network of complicated real estate and other investments, and some of the tax disputes are ongoing.

Trump has acknowledged that he tries to pay as little taxes as possible, and the public records across the country shed light on how he does it. In documents rarely seen by the public, Trump's businesses regularly minimize the value of his properties for tax purposes. Publicly, including in his presidential financial disclosure report, Trump's team declares many of those same properties are worth tens of millions of dollars more.

He's fought tax collectors to lower the assessed values of his luxury golf courses in Briarcliff, N.Y., and Jupiter, Fla. Yet on his presidential financial disclosure report, he valued each at more than $50 million.

USA TODAY's examination of Trump's track record as a business taxpayer found not just court actions, but dozens of additional tax disputes with local authorities that didn't reach the courthouse in states including New York, Nevada, Florida and New Jersey. In some cases, Trump's businesses have disputed tax assessments; in others, they have simply not paid the tax bill until after the government took additional action.

Ignored New York bills

In New York, for example, there are dozens of tax warrants against Trump businesses. Tax warrants are filed only after the state has exhausted all other options to collect what's owed.

"You have to ignore us to end up with a tax warrant," said Geoff Gloak, spokesman for the state Department of Taxation and Finance. "We try to work with taxpayers to resolve the debt, long before it becomes a warrant."

If the tax warrant is ignored, the state can choose to take the matter to court – and in some cases has.

In addition to the five tax warrants since his announcement, there are additional New York state tax warrants dating to the years before Trump became a candidate, including $1,580 in unpaid taxes in 2010 for Trump Mortgage, his failed mortgage venture, and $1,747 in unpaid taxes in early 2015 against Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, once known as the troubled Trump University, which was later paid.

Among other tax disputes involving Trump entities:

  • Trump Mortgage owes federal taxes from 2006 and 2007 totaling more than $4,800, according to two federal tax liens filed in New York.
  • Trump's businesses have sued the New York City Tax Commission 55 times from the mid-1990s through 2011, disputing the city's property assessment values on everything from apartment complexes once owned by his father to his core buildings and companies.
  • Trump-related companies have become embroiled in disputes over sales taxes owed to New York state and New York City. Tax warrants on file in New York County court found that over the past 27 years, Trump entities owed about $300,000 in back taxes, which were eventually paid.
  • The battles can save Trump millions of dollars. In 2006, Trump won a ruling on his 58-story headquarters at Trump Tower in Midtown Manhattan. It was the sixth time since 1999 that his appeals against the Tax Commission reached the courtroom, records show. The net result was about a 10% reduction over 10 years on the building — worth about $3 million to Trump.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
Bezos rebuts Trump's attacks: I'm 'very comfortable' with Amazon's practices

Alan Garten, general counsel to the Trump Organization, said he was unaware of the particulars of the tax warrant cases. He said disputes can arise over how one calculates sales-tax liabilities.

"It happens all the time," he said. "And some of the charges could have been mistaken."

Real estate developers often appeal assessments, and Morris Ellison, a commercial real estate tax attorney based in Charleston, S.C., said it's difficult to compare one organization's volume of property tax appeals vs. another's.

Garten said the companies do what any property owners have the right to do: challenge their property's assessment to make sure they are fairly taxed.

"We are a business, and we are in the business of making money," he said. "Why should it be any different if we think the assessment is incorrect? It would be irresponsible if we didn't. It's got to be fair."

Trump has been particularly aggressive by any measure, acknowledging it's part of his business strategy.

"I fight like hell to pay as little as possible," he said at a New York news conference announcing his own tax plan in September. "I fight like hell always, because it's an expense. And you know, I feel ... and I fight. I have the best lawyers and the best accountants, and I fight, and I pay. But it's an expense."

Conflicting accounts of worth

Trump's boasts about his wealth have sometimes undercut his attempts to slash his taxes. In 1985, Trump scooped up Mar-a-Lago, the opulent estate built by Marjorie Merriweather Post in Palm Beach, Fla., for $10 million, bragging in his 1989 book, The Art of the Deal, that it was a sweet deal, worth far more than he paid. When the property was assessed at $11.5 million and later $17 million, Trump objected. Litigation dragged on until 1993 over the tax bills.

A settlement hinged on Trump agreeing not to develop the Mar-a-Lago land into individual lots, said Jay Jacknin, outside counsel for Palm Beach County's appraisal's office. Last year, the county assessed the property at about $20 million — though Trump's federal financial disclosure form values it at "more than $50 million."

Similarly, just up the road in Jupiter, Fla., Trump bought the Ritz-Carlton Golf Cluband Spa in 2012 for a reported $5 million, then renovated it. For the past three years, his team has appealed the assessed value, of $13.7million as of 2015. In his financial disclosure forms, Trump claims that the course on 285 acres is worth "more than $50 million" and that it throws off more than $12 million in revenue.

In Westchester County, N.Y., Trump has taken an aggressive approach toward the town of Ossining regarding the taxable value of Trump National Golf Club in Briarcliff Manor.

The battle gained national prominence, after an investigation in September 2015 by The Journal News, which is part of the USA TODAY NETWORK, of the club's audacious bid to slash its taxable value by 90%.

Town Assessor Fernando Gonzalez valued the 140-acre complex at $14.3 million (a valuation since increased to $15.1 million) — but Trump's team countered that it was worth $1.4 million. For perspective, a three-bedroom villa built at Trump National's 16th hole on a separate tax parcel sold in 2005 for $2.4 million and was recently on the market for almost $2 million.

Trump's claimed value would slash the $471,000 in taxes he owes to the town, village county and its school district to $47,000.

Donald Trump
Trump will scare the hell out of the market, but that's OK: Stockman

Residents are outraged. "What he's claiming is way off," said Briarcliff Manor homeowner Steve Cohen. "I see people playing there. The club looks fabulous. It certainly isn't falling into disrepair."

The Trump team's lowball valuation follows a pattern similar to other assessment battles. His camp's estimate appears to be a mere opening bid in a negotiation.

Trump's attorney, Jeff Rodner, acknowledges that he is sure the property is worth more than the $1.4 million.

"Maybe it's worth $12 million, maybe $13 million," Rodner told The Journal News. "Now, my value is my opinion until it's proven otherwise."

The Briarcliff property is among 20 developments on Trump's financial disclosure report that he values at "more than $50 million" — accounting for $1 billion of his net worth that Trump claims totals $10 billion.

Steve Reilly contributed to this report.