Attacked by Trump, New York judge to weigh ex-president's fraud case

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By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Last week, Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner in the 2024 race for the White House, called a once obscure New York judge "DERANGED" and a "Highly Politicized Democrat" who "hated everything about me at a level that I have never seen before."

That same judge will preside over a trial where he will decide how much Trump and his family business should pay for committing fraud, and whether effectively to put them out of business in New York.

Justice Arthur Engoron of the state Supreme Court in Manhattan is presiding, without a jury, in the civil lawsuit brought against the former president by state Attorney General Letitia James.

James sued in September 2022, saying Trump, his adult sons Donald Jr. and Eric, the Trump Organization and others had orchestrated a "staggering fraud."

She accused the defendants of inflating Trump's worth by overvaluing properties such as his Mar-a-Lago estate, Manhattan penthouse, office towers and golf courses.

In a scathing decision on Sept. 26, Engoron found the defendants liable for fraud, and criticized Trump for suggesting under oath that the valuations were fine because he could find a "buyer from Saudi Arabia" to pay whatever he wanted.

"This statement may suggest influence buying more than savvy investing," the judge wrote.

Engoron must now best decide whether they should pay the $250 million in penalties that James has called for, and whether Trump, Donald Jr and Eric and even the Trump Organization can keep operating in New York.

The notoriety and sheer size of the case is much different for a judge who, like most in his court, is more accustomed to handling ordinary commercial disputes.

Despite Trump's vitriol, one of the former president's lawyers, Christopher Kise, called Engoron "extremely intelligent" at a hearing last week.

"He's very concerned about understanding the case and the applicable law completely, and to get it right," said John Low-Beer, a lawyer who in 2020 appeared before Engoron while representing community groups opposed to the construction of a high-rise Manhattan condominium.


Engoron's involvement in Trump's case started in 2020, when he began overseeing disputes concerning James' gathering of evidence in what became a three-year probe.

On several occasions, the judge has shown little patience with Trump.

Last year, Engoron held Trump in contempt for failing to respond to a subpoena, and eventually imposed $110,000 in fines.

In January, the judge called some of Trump's arguments "borderline frivolous."

And in a Sept. 22 hearing, Engoron pounded his fist on the bench while admonishing the defense about the importance of not making false statements in business.

Finally, in his Sept. 26 decision, Engoron said the defendants were living in a "fantasy world" by claiming documents overvaluing Trump's assets could be ignored.

The judge quoted a character played by Chico Marx in the Marx Brothers' 1933 comedy "Duck Soup" as saying, "Well, who ya gonna believe, me or your own eyes?"


Two of Engoron's higher-profile earlier rulings also concerned real estate, though both rulings were later overturned.

In one, the Manhattan condominium case where Low-Beer appeared, Engoron ruled in 2020 against a developer accused of violating zoning rules by adding 198 feet (60 meters) to the height of the building to house mechanical equipment -- letting the developer charge more for grander views.

A year earlier, Engoron overruled a city agency by blocking other developers from constructing giant apartment buildings on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

Engoron graduated from Columbia University and New York University's law school.

He spent more than a decade in private practice and 12 years clerking for a state judge, before becoming a civil court judge in 2003. Voters elected him to the state Supreme Court in 2015.

Engoron has also held membership in the American Civil Liberties Union.

Despite his apparent frustrations with Trump and his lawyers, Engoron has shown moments of levity.

At the Sept. 22 hearing, for example, he told the courtroom he tried to appear neutral as both sides made their arguments.

"I did smile two or three times," he said, "but that was at the sketch artist."

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Additional reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Daniel Wallis)