Louis Piatt still regrets the day he signed up for Trump University. The Monroe, Iowa retiree says he was duped into squandering more than $11,000 on real estate seminars and workshops.
While Piatt lost money, Trump himself made millions. Trump University paid Donald J. Trump, the Republican presidential frontrunner, $5 million out of some $40 million received by the university from 2005 to 2010, court records show.
There are at least three active lawsuits against Trump and Trump University – one by the New York Attorney General’s Office and two related California class actions. Trump has said he has returned his $5 million in fees to the university, but the entity has yet to repay most of its former students.
Piatt, who is not a named plaintiff in these three lawsuits, filed an official complaint with Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller.
People in 11 states have filed complaints with their attorneys general. In his complaint to Iowa’s attorney general, Piatt included a letter he sent to Trump University seeking some of his money back.
Thousands of people throughout the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico – like Piatt – say the university duped them. In lawsuits and complaints, they say they were lured to free seminars where they were pressured into paying for largely useless workshops starting at $1,495 and topping out at $35,000 for a “Gold Elite Program.”
Piatt had just retired in 2009, and wanted to put his knowledge of real estate into practice. After attending a free seminar at the Airport Holiday Inn in Des Moines, he agreed to pay the $1,495 for a three-day Trump University workshop.
At that workshop, also in Des Moines, he was coaxed into putting down another $9,995 for what Trump University officials called a more advanced seminar in Florida.
“What’s so embarrassing for me is that I’m a retired mortgage banker,” Piatt said. “I should have recognized their scam.”
“The bottom line is, what they were teaching was mostly old, out of date, bordering on unethical practices, and I was still suckered in, so it was my own fault,” he said.
Piatt said he would have never attended the Trump event in Iowa, and would never have spent as much as he did, if not for the sales pitch touting Trump’s hands-on role in the program bearing his name.
Among the key pieces of evidence in the class actions is an infomercial by Trump in which he presents the university as his own. In the infomercial, the billionaire claims he personally hired “professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific.”
“And honestly, if you don’t learn from them, if you don’t learn from me, if you don’t learn from the people that we’re going to be putting forward, and these are all people handpicked by me,” Trump says, “then you’re just not going to make it in terms of world-class success.”
Under oath, Trump told a different story. He testified in a 2012 deposition that, contrary to the Trump University sales materials and statements he made in the infomercial to the media, he neither selected the instructors nor oversaw the curriculum.
Asked to name a single course taught by Trump University, he could not.
To that question and many others, Trump said the plaintiff’s lawyer would have to ask Michael Sexton, the New York businessman who came up with the idea of Trump University in 2004. Sexton sold Trump on it.
While the Trump University controversy has been covered by some reporters, none of Trump’s primary opponents or debate moderators have pressed him on it.
Questions about Trump University were emailed to Trump’s campaign staff in early January and again this week. The Trump team was given more than two weeks to respond.
On Wednesday, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said that, because it was a legal matter, she had passed the questions on to Trump Organization counsel Alan Garten. Neither Garten nor anyone else among Trump’s lawyers provided a response.
Instructors were told to ask enrollees in the $1,495 workshops to provide bank and credit card balances and other financial information – and even told to raise their credit limits – according to plaintiffs in lawsuits.
The California lawsuit claims instructors did this to determine how much enrollees could afford to pay for the next level – say, $10,000, $20,000, or, for the Gold Elite program, the $34,995 – not to assess the readiness of students to buy real estate.
One of the key documents cited by plaintiffs is a 135-page playbook containing directions for instructors to sell the $1,495 workshops and the costly Gold Elite packages.
The playbook stressed the importance of repeatedly conveying the substantial and continued involvement of Donald Trump in the program bearing his name. There were scripted passages that instructors were to use.
Sworn depositions by Trump and Trump University president Michael Sexton, instructor Gerald Martin and others, revealed a different reality.
During Martin’s November 2013 deposition, one of the attorneys read a portion of the script meant to convey Trump’s involvement: “I remember one time Mr. Trump said to us over dinner, he said, ‘Real estate is the only market that when there is a sale going on, people run from the store.’ You don’t want to run from the store.”
When asked under oath, Martin admitted that he’d never had dinner with Trump. Martin also denied that he ever read that script to his students. That claim fell apart when a lawyer handed Martin a transcript of a taped presentation he gave in New Orleans, in 2009, which showed Martin telling attendees that “the reason Mr. Trump sent me out here was to invite you all to the three-day workshop we have coming up” – a reference to the $1,495 seminar.
Trump sat for a sworn deposition to answer questions from Lisa Jensen, one of the lawyers representing class members, on Sept. 12, 2012.
Trump deflected virtually all questions to Trump University president Sexton:
Q: What did the students get for the $1,500 apprentice program?
A: You’d have to ask Mr. Sexton
Q: So sitting here, you don’t know?
Q: What did the students get for the Gold Elite ($35,000) program?
A: You’d have to ask Mr. Sexton.
But the celebrated real estate investor had a clear recollection of making his own fortune:
Q: Do you know of whether any of the students made a million dollars or more using Trump University’s techniques?
A: You’d have to ask Mr. Sexton. But I did. I made a million dollars or more, unlike a lot of instructors that teach real estate and never made 10 cents.
Trump University promoted what it called “The Foreclosure System” in its brochures and other documents. This was, students were told, a system designed and used by Trump to help him buy distressed properties at rock-bottom prices.
When Jensen asked Trump to explain the foreclosure system, Trump and his attorney responded with mystification.
“What does that mean?” Trump’s lawyer asked.
Trump asked his own attorney: “Do you know what that means?”
Eventually Trump realized that plaintiffs’ attorney Jensen was asking about a specific “foreclosure system” taught by Trump University.
Trump said you would “have to ask Michael Sexton as to how it was taught.”
In September, one of Trump’s lawyers, Alan Garten, told CNN that neither Trump nor Trump University should be held responsible for the failure of students to make money.
Garten cited the collapse of the real estate market after the 2008 economic meltdown. In other words, the failure by students to make big money in real estate was the fault of market conditions, not a reflection on the strategies taught by Trump University.
But in its promotional and teaching materials, Trump University trumpeted the meltdown as a primary reason for students to enroll in the program and get to making the easy money. “Cash in on the Greatest Property Liquidation in History!” screamed one Trump University promo featuring a photo of the smiling billionaire.
Piatt, the Iowa retiree, said many of the techniques taught by Trump University were ethically dubious and, now, even illegal under Iowa law.
“To do what they were teaching, you’d have to be a pretty fast talker and a salesman, but the people you were to target were desperate,” Piatt said. “They were about to lose their homes, and you were supposed to suggest that they pursue foreclosure. That’s a lot easier said than done.”
When it came time to seek deals, Piatt said he “couldn’t allow himself to do it.” The practices taught were just too legally murky for him to engage in, he said.
Trump testified that Trump University had “higher approval ratings than Harvard.”
The Trump University website no longer exists, but Trump’s team put up another site, called 98percentapproval.com. It contains surveys from 2007 to 2010. According to Trump and his legal team, 98 percent of respondents gave Trump University positive reviews.
A California judge who ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, compared Trump University to infamous con man Bernie Madoff, writing “victims of con artists often sing the praises of their victimizers until the moment they realize they have been fleeced.”
Piatt recalled filling out one or two surveys, and said he probably gave the program good reviews. He said some of the instruction was helpful and made sense, if not particularly original.
The main problem, said Piatt, was that it was “grossly overpriced.”
“I paid as much for this thing as I would have needed for a full year’s tuition at Iowa State University.”
Piatt said that in the Iowa caucuses on Monday, he intends to support either Marco Rubio or Ben Carson.