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As two separate investigations into the Trump Organization heat up, a series of subpoenas issued by the New York attorney general and the Manhattan district attorney shows how prosecutors are probing one particular land deal.
The subpoenas, which have not been publicly released until now, have been issued during the past 18 months to three towns just north of New York City.
Investigators asked for a trove of documents related to Donald Trump’s failed attempts to develop a luxury golf course on a 212-acre, forested estate that spans across those three towns and includes several mansions. The requested documents and subsequent court filings show that investigators are examining whether the Trump Organization inflated the value of the property for a charitable tax write-off.
The Daily Beast has learned the state Attorney General’s Office issued a round of subpoenas in November 2019. Investigators demanded copies of “zoning, property planning, or other building and construction permissions” sought by Trump’s firm for the property, Seven Springs LLC. At question is the dense forest that surrounds a towering, 60-room, century-old, sandstone chateau that includes three pools, carriage houses, and is imposing enough to justify its own forecourt and fountain.
Think: Bruce Wayne. (There’s even a massive suspected bat population on the grounds of the estate.)
When locals fought Trump’s building plans, Trump decided to give away his land rights to a conservation group—allowing him to take a hefty $21.1 million tax deduction in 2015, according to a filing made by investigators last August.
But the pivotal question remains: Was the gifted land really worth that much if nothing was built on it?
The towns of Bedford, New Castle, and North Castle handed over dozens of documents, according to records The Daily Beast obtained.
At that time in late 2019, the AG’s office had already issued a subpoena seeking records and communications to see if the Trump Organization and its officers committed bank fraud—again, essentially a case concerning lying about asset values. Nearly a year later, the team would acknowledge in court filings that it hadn’t yet “reached a determination” whether it had found “violations of any applicable laws.”
Meanwhile, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. was busy trying to get then-President Trump’s tax returns in order to examine his “hush money” payments to the porn star Stormy Daniels. As that investigation expanded into a criminal probe of Trump’s property valuations in cities across the country, that office also sent subpoenas for the Seven Springs conservation deal to the same three towns in December 2020.
Except this time, investigators demanded a much larger collection of records. They asked for items like planning board meeting minutes, which would help show whether Trump ever really stood a chance at building on the land, and they sought records dating back more than 15 years in some cases—items that one clerk said should have been destroyed.
Another town clerk said that, as recently as two months ago, DA investigators were still picking up boxes of documents and loading them onto a truck.
Those subpoenas, tied to a 2018 case called “Investigation into the Business and Affairs of John Doe,” demanded copies of a dozen different types of records, as well as “appraisals, engineering reports, and environmental impact statements.”
Where those two separate probes overlap, their efforts have now merged.
Ever since news of a grand jury broke, Trump reacted in his standard, bitter fury. He publicly denounced the New York investigations as politically motivated, and he claimed they were trying to harm his potential 2024 presidential run.
In the past few days, lawyers and other advisers close to the twice-impeached former president have personally reassured Trump they do not believe New York prosecutors will ever actually indict him, according to two people familiar with the situation.
“I told him that he has nothing to worry about,” one of these advisers said.
Still, Trump’s attorneys have already discussed possible legal maneuvers in the event that the ex-president is eventually indicted as a result of these probes. According to a person with direct knowledge of the conversations, Trump’s lawyers would argue, for instance, that the investigation was tainted due to New York Attorney General Letitia James’ openly “partisan” rhetoric about Trump’s alleged criminality and her remarks about Trump being an “illegitimate” president.
Former Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Alissa Marque Heydari, who now runs the academic Institute for Innovation in Prosecution, sounded more hopeful.
“Using the grand jury to focus on the acts of the most powerful will help restore trust in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Too often, those tools are brought to bear on the last powerful in our society. But the investigations of the AG and DA buck this norm.”
But one source of Trump’s palpable anger with the New York investigations isn’t the possible legal peril; it’s the ballooning financial cost to him and his business empire.
The ex-president has recently complained repeatedly about how he feels the investigators could drag this out for years, and that the hefty legal bills are becoming “such a pain in the ass,” one of these sources recounted.
Indeed, a motion delivered by Trump’s lawyers earlier this month alleged that a lawsuit filed against him by the NAACP over the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was “frivolous,” and stated that the Democratic plaintiffs and their lawyers “should be ordered to pay President Trump’s fees and costs.”
Last week, the AG’s office confirmed that its civil case had recently become a criminal one. James later revealed that two of her prosecutors have been deputized to work alongside the Manhattan DA’s team. And on Tuesday, The Washington Post reported that the DA has already convened a grand jury to make the historic decision of whether or not to indict Trump and others involved.
“It’s relatively rare to partner up to this extent on an investigation together,” said Tess Cohen, a criminal defense lawyer who presented cases before grand juries for years when she was at the Special Narcotics Prosecutor's Office in New York City.
Given the circumstances, Cohen said it’s likely that both prosecution teams are now presenting to the same grand jury, which is an even rarer development that could indicate a few things. Either one investigation team has access to a key cooperating witness that the other side needs, or the unprecedented act of targeting a former president is such a political minefield that bringing two government offices together strengthens their case.
Neither office would confirm the existence of a sitting grand jury, as such proceedings are secret by state law, nor would they provide comment for this story.
Another reason to team up might be differences in jurisdiction, said Dan Feldman, a law professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice who worked at the AG’s office for six years until 2005. Feldman, who as a state legislator also wrote New York's mob-busting anti-racketeering law, said the AG’s office also has greater ability to use that against the many entities and players in the Trump world on this deal.
“Because the AG has the organized crime task force, they are particularly well-equipped to pursue an Organized Crime Control Act indictment because they have the expertise, the background, and statewide jurisdiction,” he said.
The attorney general has the ability to prosecute crimes that occurred outside of Manhattan. Although the Trump Organization and its Seven Springs LLC subsidiary are based in New York City, the property being appraised is in Westchester County and any meddling in that deal may have occurred outside the city.
Trump’s second son, Eric Trump, hired the real estate firm Cushman & Wakefield in June 2015 to appraise the property, according to material gathered by the AG’s office. That firm determined that the property was worth $56.5 million as of Dec. 1, 2015, just days before Trump gave away development rights on a huge chunk of that land.
When Trump did sign the agreement, he turned over rights to the North American Land Trust. The conservation easement, as it’s called, bestows power on this nonprofit to protect the 158 acres of red oaks, sugar maples, and huckleberry bushes. An environmental assessment in the document says “it is likely that the Conservation Area provides critical habitat for some of the rarest bat species of the region,” like the little brown bat.
One person involved in that conservation deal told The Daily Beast they were questioned by the AG’s office more than two years ago about the land’s value and how it was appraised. The person said they had not spoken to investigators since or been brought before any current grand jury as a witness. The AG’s office would not confirm their account.
Another person who was ordered to turn over documents was Charles Martabano, the land-use attorney who represented Seven Springs and tried to develop the property. State investigators used a subpoena to obtain hundreds of pages of emails, although he successfully kept many of them from prosecutors by declaring them subject to attorney-client privilege.
“From his point of view, there is absolutely, positively nothing inappropriate here,” said Martabano’s attorney, George J. Calcagnini.
One town clerk, who turned over documents to investigators, lambasted the investigation as a waste of time and said the town shouldn’t have kept the documents long enough to turn over to investigators.
“They're not going to find what they're looking for,” she said.