CHICAGO Donald Trump took the witness stand Tuesday at a civil trial where the developer-turned-TV personality is accused of wooing investors into buying condos at his namesake Chicago skyscraper by promising profit sharing, then reneging on that promise after the sales.
The real estate magnate gained famed for scrutinizing contestants and firing ones he deemed incompetent on his "Apprentice'' TV show. But Trump himself was the one on the hot seat as a plaintiff's attorney sought to demonstrate to jurors that he and his companies engaged in a bait and switch.
Plaintiff's attorney Shelly Kulwin sought to establish that Trump was a hands-on manager, while Trump said he was a big-picture executive.
"The primary thing is to build a great building,'' Trump told jurors, leaning into a microphone and speaking calmly and steadily. "You can't fool people.''
"That's an interesting infomercial,'' Kulwin responded. The attorney later told the judge that Trump wasn't answering his questions, saying that "he's giving a speech.''
Both sides have said Trump's testimony is key to the trial's outcome, and so he could remain on the stand for days talking about the development of his glitzy Trump International Hotel & Tower.
The trial stems from a lawsuit filed by Jacqueline Goldberg, 87, who in 2006 agreed to buy two condos for around $1 million apiece at the 92-story luxury building. It boasts more than 300 hotel rooms and nearly 500 condominiums in a prime location along the Chicago River just two blocks from Michigan Avenue.
The lawsuit, which alleges breach of contract and deceptive practices, seeks the return of a $500,000 deposit Goldberg made for the properties and other unspecified damages.
Goldberg's lawyer portrayed the sale of the condos to his client as a bait and switch in which Trump and his executives sought to make the properties more attractive investments by telling would-be buyers they would reap a percentage of profits from banquet hall rentals, food sales, laundry, parking and other services.
Trump's stardom and real estate successes were also touted in condo sales pitches.
" 'Who better to go into the hotel business with than Donald Trump?' she thought,'' Kulwin told jurors during opening statements Monday.
One reason Trump summarily canceled the profit-sharing plan, Kulwin said, was because he had failed to entice a corporate tenant to rent several floors of the building cutting into the tower's potential profit. The profit he had promised to make the condos a more attractive investment he now needed for himself, Kulwin said.
By the time Goldberg went ahead with her purchase in 2006, Kulwin alleged, Trump and other executives already knew the profit-sharing offer would be withdrawn. It was formally withdrawn only in 2009, however, a few months before the tower's grand opening, he said.
"They made a deal and then they said, 'Surprise! No deal,' '' he said.
But Trump attorney Stephen Novack said Goldberg was a sophisticated, longtime investor who signed documents explicitly giving Trump executives the power to revoke the profit-sharing offer if they saw fit.
In an apparent bid to deflect any blame from Trump himself, Novack in his opening statement also sought to counter the plaintiff's portrayal of Trump as a hands-on executive.
"Donald Trump delegates most decisions,'' Novack said, noting he had 2,500 employees. "It would be impossible for him to be in the details of each project.''
He insisted the decision to change the profit-sharing provision was someone else's and it was one that Trump agreed to only later.
Trump has been no stranger to litigation recently. In another current case, a former Virginia socialite's son who sold the sprawling front yard of his family's 45-room mansion to Trump's real estate empire said he has been cheated and wants the land back.
The John W. Kluge Jr. Trust filed a lawsuit in April demanding the return of 217 acres fronting Albemarle House, which Trump bought last year for $6.5 million.
The estate formerly was owned by Patricia Kluge, ex-wife of the late billionaire media mogul John Kluge. Trump bought it from Bank of America after the lender foreclosed on the property. Before buying the mansion and about 3,000 acres in the Blue Ridge foothills, Trump Virginia Acquisitions paid $150,000 for the front parcel. The lawsuit filed last week in Albemarle County Circuit Court said Trump agreed to pay more if he was able to buy the mansion within two years, but has refused to make good on the deal.
Plaintiffs' attorney Edward MacMahon said the second payment, which was based on the sales price of the 23,500-square-foot brick Georgian-style house, should be about $200,000. "It's obviously not news that Donald Trump doesn't want to pay a bill, but it is news that he won't pay for something and expects to keep it," MacMahon told AP in a telephone interview.