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The Trump Family. They did quite well in Panama, with a little help from their friends and assorted crooks. Photo credit: WikiCommons.

You’re going to be hearing a lot about Donald Trump’s business ties in Panama to a rather extraordinary set of characters, including people with reported links to Russian criminals, some allegedly mafiosos, and a key Colombian that laundered vast sums of money for Latin American drug cartels — and who is currently serving time in a U.S. prison for illegally moving cash into the United States.

In fact, without the money brought in by these shady figures — the cast reads like a cross between Goodfellas and Narcos — it’s fair to say that Trump and his local partner in Panama would never have been able to build the Trump International Hotel & Tower Panama, which became one of his most lucrative overseas deals.

And keep in mind that this was not merely a licensing deal where he received fees for the use of his name. In Panama, he and his family — Ivanka and Eric, in particular — ran companies that managed nearly 1,000 combined hotel rooms and condo units.

I took the story to Global Witness and was the lead investigator on the project, having worked worked on it for this entire year. It was released today in a report — NARCO-A-LAGO: MONEY LAUNDERING AT THE TRUMP OCEAN CLUB PANAMA — and NBC and Reuters have put out stories as well. I’ve talked to reporters from a variety of other places and I expect it’s going to get picked up by large number of news print and broadcasting outlets.

(I’ll have a lot more on this story later today and next week, including critical information that won’t be published anywhere else.)

Here’s an excerpt from the top of the report:

In the early 2000s, a series of bankruptcies meant Donald J. Trump was shunned by most lenders. Struggling for credit, he started selling his name to high-end real estate projects. This report examines in detail the criminal connections that propelled one such project – the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama – and how this case bears some of the same disturbing hallmarks as other Trump developments.
Since he became President of the United States, numerous investigations and articles have probed Trump’s business dealings and his alleged links to criminals and other shadowy characters…

Trump may not have deliberately set out to facilitate criminal activity in his business dealings. But, as this Global Witness investigation shows, licensing his brand to the luxurious Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama aligned Trump’s financial interests with those of crooks looking to launder ill-gotten gains. Trump seems to have done little to nothing to prevent this. What is clear is that proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking were laundered through the Trump Ocean Club and that Donald Trump was one of the beneficiaries…

Another was Murcia Guzmán’s business associate, Alexandre Henrique Ventura Nogueira, who brokered nearly a third of the 666 pre-construction unit sales at the Trump Ocean Club and claims to have sold 250-400 units overall. Ventura Nogueira’s sales brokerage was critical to ensuring the project’s lift-off and Trump’s ability to earn tens of millions of dollars…

The warning signs were there from the outset. The Trump Ocean Club, one of Trump’s most lucrative licensing deals to date, was announced in 2006 and launched in 2011, a period when Panama was known as one of the best places in the world to launder money. Whole neighborhoods in Panama City were taken over by organized crime groups, and luxury developments were built with the purpose of serving as money laundering vehicles.

Moreover, investing in luxury properties is a tried and trusted way for criminals to move tainted cash into the legitimate financial system, where they can spend it freely. Once scrubbed clean in this way, vast profits from criminal activities like trafficking people and drugs, organized crime, and terrorism can find their way into the U.S. and elsewhere. In most countries, regulation is notoriously lax in the real estate sector. Cash payments are subject to hardly any scrutiny, giving opportunistic and unprincipled developers free rein to accept dirty money.

In the case of the Trump Ocean Club, accepting easy – and possibly dirty – money early on would have been in Trump’s interest; a certain volume of pre-construction sales was necessary to secure financing for the project, which stood to net him $75.4 million by the end of 2010. Trump received a percentage of the financing he helped secure, and a cut on the sale of every unit at the development.

He and his family have made millions of dollars more from management fees and likely continue to profit from the Trump Ocean Club. Eager for the project’s success, Trump and his children have participated directly in marketing, management, and even project design. According to broker Ventura Nogueira, Trump’s daughter Ivanka attended at least 10 meetings with him and project developer Roger Khafif.

A large number of those involved with the Trump Ocean Club in its early phase were Russian and Eastern European citizens or diaspora members. In an interview with NBC and Reuters, Ventura Nogueira said that 50 percent of his buyers were Russian, and that some had “questionable backgrounds.” He added that he found out later that some were part of the Russian Mafia.

 I’ll tell you a bit more below — and read that Global Witness report for the full story — but I also want to tell you, because in this day and age you have to take journalism credit when credit is due, how I broke today’s news.

I first heard about Trump’s shady ties in Panama and the Trump project — one of his most lucrative overseas deals — in August of 2016. I’d reported from Panama before, when I published the first account about Mossack Fonseca — long before the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists won a Pulitzer Prize for publishing stories based on curiously selective leaks of the firm’s emails.

I was intrigued by what I heard about Trump’s Panama deal but the story was complex — it’s not hard to follow after spending more than a year reporting it, but at the time it seemed immensely complicated — and it was too close to the election to do it properly. Plus, I figured Hillary would win the election anyway and there’d be no interest in the story.

I did a short item for Washington Babylon about it on October 6, 2016 — I deleted it after I started my investigation — but here’s the proof. Anyway, to make a long story short, I pitched the story to Global Witness last January and it was approved in March.

I moved to Miami for most of this year — a lot of people involved in the story are there — traveled to Panama for 18 days in April and May, and to Canada to interview sources as well. I did hundreds and hundreds of interviews during the course of the year, including cold-calling and door-knocking a number of alleged members of the Russian mafia, at home and abroad.

I was also traveling regularly between Miami, Washington and New York to talk to people and dig for information. Global Witness provided tremendous support for the project and I worked on it up until the last minute, helping with fact-checking, reporting and, in a minor way, managing sources and the media.

NBC got involved a few months ago, after I briefed them on the story for Global Witness, and Reuters got involved more recently. Let me emphasize here that I didn’t write the Global Witness report’s conclusions and recommendations, and may or may not share them. I have not yet seen NBC or Reuters coverage — I don’t watch TV news at all so I have no interest in seeing their stories, and I couldn’t have caught the Today show anyway as I have a nasty hangover because I saw an absolutely incredible concert by Lucero last night in Baltimore — and almost certainly will not agree with the conclusions they drew either.

You may find my taking credit here obnoxious, but when other outlets start submitting their applications for journalism awards at least the judges will have some idea of how to evaluate their work. I also see this as a reply to a few people who have written me or posted on social media that I no longer do “serious” reporting.

First off, to those latter shit heads, who made you the gatekeepers of what’s serious reporting? Second, about 80 percent of what I do at Washington Babylon is serious reporting. Getting people to read about politics is about as easy as getting kids (or me) to eat broccoli. I’m just trying to make it go down easier.

Lastly, I want readers to know that when you hear people talking about the serious, amazing investigation of Trump’s business interests in Panama, you wouldn’t be talking about it if I hadn’t investigated it — ages before anyone else — and miraculously, in this day and age, lobbied for and received the funding to do it right. Try it, Serious Reporters.

In terms of the report, check it out, but here are two key takeaways: Trump and the local developer did zero, or close to zero, due diligence in screening buyers and sellers of the units. That’s the key reason so much dirty money came in, to their great benefit.

Second, the project would never have happened without the dirty money that flowed in during the pre-construction phase. It was thanks to these early sales that Bear Stearns – the Wall Street giant whose collapse less than a year later triggered the global economic meltdown –- underwrote a $220 million bond issue to finance the project’s construction.

No dirty money, no project.

END PART 1