Business News

‘Turkish Trump,’ a hotel plan and a tangle of foreign ties

Steve Eder & Ben Protess
The Ritz-Carlton Moscow, which Yusuf Sarimsakci helped oversee.
Getty Images

Before taking office, Donald J. Trump pledged that his business empire would forgo new deals abroad while he was president. But as the Trump Organization unveils a new brand of hotels, that promise is not preventing the company from bringing foreign deals home.

The company, now largely run by Mr. Trump's eldest sons, Eric and Donald Jr., has been pursuing a downtown Dallas hotel project with a real estate firm that has deep Turkish roots. The hotel, if built, would fall under the Trump Organization's Scion chain, a more affordable alternative to its five-star luxury line.

An examination by The New York Times of records including corporation registrations, private emails and archived websites found that Alterra Worldwide, the real estate firm that would own the hotel and be partners with the Trumps, has business ties in Russia, Kazakhstan and at least two dozen other countries. Ordinarily, such international experience would be a selling point for the firm, but it is a complicating factor when dealing with Mr. Trump's company, where concerns already have been raised internally about some of Alterra's foreign connections.

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These revelations show that as the Trump Organization rolls out its new hotel line across the country — properties that the Trumps will manage and their partners will own — a partnership with Alterra may invite the foreign entanglements and potential conflicts of interest that the company said it sought to avoid in its international dealings.

Alterra's president, Mukemmel Sarimsakci, is a familiar face in Dallas, where he has recruited foreign investment to other developments that earned praise from city officials. Mr. Sarimsakci — who goes by Mike, or, alternatively, the "Turkish Trump" — is also listed on an expert consultant website charging $465 an hour for advice on doing business in such countries as Iran, Mexico and Nigeria. And he has counseled the governments of Sri Lanka, Azerbaijan, Sudan and Georgia, among others, on renewable energy, he acknowledged to The Times.

His brother and longtime business partner, Yusuf Sarimsakci, has helped oversee numerous developments around the world, including the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow near the Kremlin, the hotel where Mr. Trump stayed in 2013 while his Miss Universe pageant came to town. On that project, Yusuf worked with a wealthy Kazakh businessman who has ties to the strong-arm leader of that country.

"For construction, we do business in Russia, Kazakhstan and Iraq, and we have a big office in Istanbul," Mike Sarimsakci said in 2015 at a start-up event in Texas, adding, "And that's run by my brother, my partner."

The Times's review of Alterra's international business dealings also found that Yusuf had worked with an array of companies based in corporate secrecy and tax havens like the British Virgin Islands, a revelation from the vast leak of legal and financial documents known as the Panama Papers. At least three of the companies shared an address in the British Virgin Islands that the Treasury Department — unrelated to Yusuf, who has never been accused of wrongdoing — identified as housing a sanctioned North Korean entity.

The Times's examination found that Alterra and its associates have done business in countries that have complex and tense relations with the United States — including Turkey, which has become a vexing place for the Trump administration. (Mr. Sarimsakci did not answer questions about his opinions on Turkish politics, though posts on Twitter from 2015 show some support for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.)

Donald Trump Jr. (L) and Eric Trump, sons of U.S. President Donald Trump.
Getty Images

In January, then President-elect Trump and his lawyers announced his ethics plan, which included putting his business in a trust managed by his two eldest sons and an executive, while also appointing an outside ethics adviser and a chief compliance counsel to review potential deals.

The potential partnership with Mr. Sarimsakci's firm has not yet cleared those ethical hurdles, and lawyers scrutinizing the deal have privately raised concerns about some of the foreign connections, including Yusuf's ties to Russia, according to a person briefed on the matter but who was not authorized to speak publicly about Trump Organization business.

It is possible that the deal will proceed only if Mr. Sarimsakci agrees to restrictions on his partners and the funding of the deal. The vetting process is iterative, allowing the Trump Organization to restructure deals if the ethics officer raises concerns.

In an interview, Eric Danziger, the chief executive officer of the Trump Organization's hotel operation, said that the company had signed letters of intent with Mr. Sarimsakci and about 30 other partners across the country, but that there were no final contracts or guarantees. Of all those partners, Mr. Sarimsakci is the only one who has been publicly confirmed, as he has trumpeted the potential deal in the local news media.

"That particular owner got out ahead of his skis for whatever reason," said Mr. Danziger, who said that there were four potential Scion deals in the Dallas area, calling it "a perfect market for us." He said that a potential Alterra partnership was still on the table and that foreign ties would not automatically disqualify it.

In drafting his presidential ethics policy, Mr. Trump gave extra consideration to international dealings, given the emoluments clause of the Constitution banning federal employees from accepting gifts from foreign leaders or governments. He pledged that profits made from foreign governments at existing Trump hotels would be donated to the United States Treasury.

Projects in the United States, even those funded with foreign money, arguably pose less of a reputational and ethical threat to the company and the president because they would be subject to local laws and regulations. Even so, once foreign money is involved, it can be difficult to trace its origins.

Mike Sarimsakci has been quoted in the Dallas Business Journal saying that the deal would be financed by his family and business associates in Turkey and Kazakhstan. In recent statements to The Dallas Morning News, which has chronicled Mr. Sarimsakci's legal and business difficulties in the United States, he backed away from those claims and said the money would come only from him and two American partners. He declined to elaborate to The Times.

Over the past month, Mr. Sarimsakci deferred numerous interview requests from The Times, canceled a dinner meeting and directed reporters to the Trump Organization. When presented with a publication deadline, he provided email responses to only some questions.

In his answers to The Times, Mr. Sarimsakci said that his brother — whom he has repeatedly identified as his business partner — was not a partner in the Scion project and that he had not been working because he was ill. He also said that Yusuf was "not a director or a shareholder at Alterra Worldwide," referring reporters to his firm's website.

However, that website — which identifies the Dallas Scion development as a continuing project — listed his brother among its partners and as a shareholder and board member. After The Times pressed Mr. Sarimsakci to explain the discrepancy, Yusuf and other partners with foreign ties were removed from the Alterra Worldwide website. The firm also removed mention of its real estate deals in Kazakhstan.

Yusuf did not respond to messages seeking comment.

From Euro Disney to Panama Papers

Born and raised in Turkey, Mike and Yusuf Sarimsakci both attended college in the United States, studying civil engineering as undergraduates at Colorado State and earning master's degrees from Stanford.

Mike Sarimsakci joined the construction firm Bechtel, where he worked on projects like Euro Disney and a theme park in Dubai in the 1990s, before helping to operate a chain of Black Sea Gallery furniture stores in California with his wife's family.

Ultimately, the furniture stores fell on hard times as some customers complained that orders went undelivered for months. Some customers sued. And by 2008, court records show, the company had closed.

In an email, Mr. Sarimsakci played down his role in Black Sea Gallery, which he said had "45,000 satisfied clients with over 200,000 deliveries."

"All the sold goods were delivered," he said, and "no bankruptcy was declared, as it was an orderly shutdown."

Yet Mr. Sarimsakci left a trail of creditors, records show. There was a 2008 lawsuit for about $351,000 that The San Francisco Chronicle said he owed for unpaid advertising costs, which was settled, and tens of thousands of dollars in debt owed to Citibank and Capital One. (He says he does not currently owe them money.)

While Yusuf invested in the furniture business from afar, he established himself in Moscow, first as an executive with Mosenka, a joint real estate venture founded by the Moscow municipal government and Enka Holding, a Turkish company. He later became managing director of Capital Partners, where he helped manage projects like Metropolis Center and the Ritz-Carlton in Moscow.

The Ritz-Carlton, completed in 2007, was a signature project. Built near the Red Square, it was hailed as uniquely luxurious for Russia. "This is one of the best hotel brands in the world, and in Moscow there is nothing of its caliber yet," Yusuf told in 2004.

But behind some of the glitzy projects, including the Metropolis and Ritz-Carlton developments, was a maze of companies based in Panama and the British Virgin Islands — areas known for corporate secrecy — The Times found. Yusuf's name appeared on paperwork for several of these companies, and he appeared largely to cut ties with them in 2009, according to documents that were part of the Panama Papers. The documents were obtained by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which shared them with The Times through a collaboration organized by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

Two of the shell companies used the law firm Mossack Fonseca, whose records were leaked in the Panama Papers, to arrange for Panamanian citizens to act as directors and sign corporate paperwork, including one person who reportedly served on the board of thousands of companies. (They were referred to in internal documents as "the Panamanian directors.") And some of these companies had no assigned business purpose despite regularly changing ownership.

"This carousel of stock ownership is potentially beneficial if you are trying to conceal ownership at any particular time," explained John Moscow, a white-collar defense lawyer who was a prosecutor in the Manhattan district attorney's office for about 30 years and specialized in overseas financial crime.

Mr. Moscow, who reviewed the documents for The Times, said there was no indication that Yusuf or his associates were involved in any improper conduct, but added, "You have a whole bunch of documents that don't say what these companies do."

"The use of these entities can be legitimate, or it can be mischievous," he said, "but you don't know and there's no one who is accountable."

'Turkish Trump' comes to Dallas

A savvy self-promoter, Mr. Sarimsakci has a good deal in common with Mr. Trump: He briefly operated a business investment seminar program and values appearances. (He wears Armani and Gucci and is often photographed chomping on cigars.) Like the president, he has political interests and promotes his global influence. (He hopes to become the first United States senator from Turkey, which he visits every six weeks, he told a Turkish publication.)

By 2011, Mr. Sarimsakci, having reinvented himself as a globe-trotting real estate developer, showed up in Dallas.

Over the next several years, he announced a series of deals — two of which took hold. Working with his brother and other partners, he soon took on the pair of redevelopment projects in the city's downtown, a long-underdeveloped area that has seen a surge of activity in recent years.

The first was Alto 211, a half-century-old, 18-story office building, which they transformed into a technology start-up hub.

The second project, which is still underway, is the restoration of the hundred-year-old Butler Brothers Building, which occupies a full city block. Two Marriott brands are planning to open hotels at the property, and a residential section recently opened. Millions of dollars of capital for the project came from Chinese investors hoping to qualify for visas through the immigrant investment program known as EB-5, an initiative that enables wealthy foreign investors to put themselves on a path to United States citizenship.

"He brings with him a lot of foreign investment in order to get these jobs done," John Crawford, the vice chairman of Downtown Dallas Inc., a nonprofit focused on urban revitalization, said of Mr. Sarimsakci.

While Mr. Sarimsakci has said that he hopes to work on Scion hotels in a number of cities, Dallas appears to be first.

Officials in the city — a Democratic stronghold in a Republican state — are warming to the idea. It helps that he has not asked the city for financial support, and that the 220-room Scion development would blend into the downtown landscape, unlike a Trump-branded high-rise.

"He is a real innovator," Dallas's mayor, Mike Rawlings, a Democrat, said in an interview. He recently met with Mr. Sarimsakci to discuss the Scion project.

Alterra Worldwide has a contract to buy the land, currently a parking lot, that the Scion hotel would occupy from Larry Hamilton, a Dallas developer. Mr. Hamilton, while not disclosing the price of the deal, said the offer was too good to pass up.

Mr. Hamilton, who said he has gotten to know Mr. Sarimsakci over dinners and met Yusuf in Dallas, did not know of the Trumps' involvement until after the agreement was in place.

"He's a wheeler-dealer," Mr. Hamilton said of Mr. Sarimsakci. "He seems like a good guy to me."

He noted that some of the Dallas deals Mr. Sarimsakci pursued "were not layups." "Bless his soul" for pulling them off, Mr. Hamilton said of Mr. Sarimsakci.

Mr. Sarimsakci announced plans for his Scion hotel to local news media outlets in Dallas last month, suggesting that it was a done deal. And last spring he discussed the endeavor with the Turkish publication Hurriyet.

"We know Trump," he told the publication, according to a translation. "He is a very good businessman and a very successful person." He added that the Trumps were considering four-star hotels. "We will make those together," he said.

With foreign developments shelved, the Scion brand, announced in September, is an essential part of the company's expansion plans. In addition to Dallas, the Trump Organization is pursuing Scion locations in Austin, Tex., Cincinnati, Nashville and Charlotte, N.C., part of its strategy to open four-star hotels in secondary markets.

But Mr. Danziger, the head of the Trump hotel business, warned that up to half the potential Scion deals may fall apart and that potential partners should not get ahead of themselves.

"My experience is the spouting whale that gets harpooned."