Trump Wins Round Two At CFPB

image by Slr722x

Bloomberg Law quoted me in Court Says Mulvaney Can Lead CFPB, but Legal Fight Continues. It opens,

The court battle over the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s top leadership has shifted in the Trump administration’s favor, but continued litigation could test its ability to revamp the agency.

Judge Timothy J. Kelly yesterday denied deputy director Laura English’s bid for an order that would have barred Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney from serving as acting CFPB director, setting up what many expect to be an appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Although plenty of questions lie ahead, perhaps the biggest is whether and to what extent ongoing uncertainty raised by the case impacts the administration’s effort to revamp consumer protection regulation at the CFPB.

“This is clearly a win for the administration, but there’s still so much uncertainty,” David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School in Brooklyn, N.Y, told Bloomberg Law in a phone interview. “What we’ll see for the next few months is whether that uncertainty makes it harder for Mulvaney to turn the ship.”

Kelly’s 46-page decision, which several attorneys privately described as careful and thorough, is the second such setback for English, who previously lost a bid for a temporary restraining order. Even so, hazards lie ahead for the administration.

University of Michigan Law School Professor Nina Mendelson said an eventual ruling on the merits against Mulvaney could call into question any actions based on authority he now claims, such as final regulations, settlements, or other matters.

“A court could invalidate all of those actions,” Mendelson said on a call hosted by consumer advocates. Mendelson, an expert on administrative law, said she’s taken an independent stance on the case.

New York Challenge

Kelly’s Jan. 10 ruling isn’t the last word, according to Brianne Gorod, an attorney with the Constitutional Accountability Center who also joined the call. “The legal fight here is far from over,” she said.

The decision also may boost the stakes for a separate challenge to Mulvaney in federal court in New York. There, the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union also seeks a court order declaring that English, not Mulvaney, is the CFPB’s rightful acting director. The credit union says the appointment of Mulvaney has thrown the credit union into “regulatory chaos,” because it can’t identify the lawful director of the CFPB.

BTW, I am a signatory on an amicus brief filed in the Lower East Side People’s Federal Credit Union case.

Decay at Donald J. Trump State Park

photo by Alan Kroeger

Yahoo News quoted me in New York’s Donald J. Trump State Park: A Story of Abandonment and Decay. It opens,

Donald J. Trump State Park is dilapidated and forgotten. No running path, no picnic table, no basketball hoop, no hiking trail, no ball field. It’s 436 acres of neglected land, overrun by weeds and brush. Most of the buildings that once stood on it have been demolished, and the few that remain are in utter disrepair: broken windows, rusted metal, corroded walls, missing or boarded-up doors and caved-in roofs.

That’s what became of the “gift” Donald Trump once gave to New York State.

Yahoo News sent several recent pictures of the park to Eric F. Trump, the president’s son and executive vice president of the Trump Organization, to see what he thinks of its current state. He responded that the state has failed to maintain the property and that he’s disappointed by what he saw in the photographs.

“It is very disappointing to see the recent pictures of the Donald J. Trump State Park. My father donated this incredible land to the State of New York so that a park could be created for the enjoyment of all New York State’s citizens,” Eric F. Trump told Yahoo News. “Despite the fact that the terms of his gift specifically required the State to maintain the Park, the State has done a poor job running and sustaining the property. While we are looking into various remedies, it is my sincere hope that going forward, the State will exercise greater responsibility and restore the land into the magnificent park it was, and should continue to be.”

In the ’90s, then businessman Trump purchased a large swath of open meadows and thick woods 45 miles north of midtown Manhattan for a reported two million dollars, with plans to build a private golf course. But Trump couldn’t get approval from the towns of Putnam Valley or Yorktown and wound up donating the land to New York State in 2006. He claimed to the media that this “gift” was worth $100 million (though this was likely his characteristic hyperbole), and received a substantial tax write-off.

On April 19, 2006, then Gov. George E. Pataki announced Trump’s “generous and meaningful gift” would become New York’s 174th state park. He said the park would protect open space, increase public access to scenic landscapes and provide recreational opportunities in the city’s far-northern suburbs.

“On behalf of the people of the Empire State, I express our gratitude to Donald Trump for his vision and commitment to preserve the natural resource of this property for the benefit of future generations,” Pataki said at the time.

Trump said, “I have always loved the city and state of New York, and this is my way of trying to give something back. I hope that these 436 acres of property will turn into one of the most beautiful parks anywhere in the world.”

The establishment of Donald J. Trump State Park combined two parcels of land: the 282-acre Indian Hill site, which straddles the border of Westchester and Putnam counties, and the 154-acre French Hill site in Westchester County. Pataki’s office touted the new park as an example of New York’s role as a national leader in stewarding the United States’ natural resources.

But the promised recreational facilities never were built. New York stopped maintaining Donald J. Trump State Park in 2010 because of budget cuts, even though its annual operation costs were only $2,500, and it was cared for by workers at nearby Franklin D. Roosevelt Park.

Randy Simons, a public information officer for the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, told Yahoo News that the park is currently open and serves “as a passive park offering hiking, birdwatching and similar outdoor recreational activities.”

Simons explained that the office recently removed several vacant and shabby buildings to address potential public safety and environmental hazards. This consisted of demolishing a 3,700-square-foot house, four other structures and a swimming pool. They also conducted asbestos and lead paint abatement.

 “Trail planning is underway for a formalized hiking trail network and mountain bike trails. The first step is a natural resources review and state environmental quality review to ensure that sensitive wetlands and plant and animal habitats are protected,” Simons said. “The ultimate timeline will be determined by this review.”

*     *     *

How much Trump benefited from donating the land is difficult to determine. Bridget J. Crawford, a professor at Pace University School of Law in nearby White Plains, N.Y., and a member at the American Law Institute, said it’s quite common for wealthy people to donate real property to a state or a local government for a park. The Rockefeller family, for instance, donated the Rockefeller State Park Preserve in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., little by little starting in 1983.“

“There’s nothing unusual about the donation,” Crawford told Yahoo News. “The problem of course here is that the donation of land was made but there was no additional cash gift made in order to maintain or create the park. It seems the state and municipalities don’t have the money to do that. If these sort of deals ‘fail,’ it’s always because of lack of funding.”

Crawford’s scholarship focuses on wealth transfer taxation and property law. She said people who are serious about establishing open space parks that the public can use in meaningful ways often make substantial cash contributions as well to fund the park’s maintenance.

As for how much money Trump saved, it would depend on what valuation the IRS accepted for the land; the figure of $100 million was Trump’s unofficial estimate, for public consumption. Another variable is whether he personally owned the property or purchased it via a pass-through entity like an LLC. Crawford explained that if it were owned through an LLC that was ignored for income tax purposes, which is not unusual, a $100 million donation would have saved Trump about $35 million in taxes.

Nevertheless, it seems unlikely that the IRS would accept a $100 million appraisal of land that was sold for a few million dollars at fair market value in the 1990s.

David Reiss, a professor of law at Brooklyn Law School who focuses on real estate finance and community development, said he doesn’t doubt that Trump got an appraisal that “pushed the limits” to price it as high as possible, a move that is not uncommon. He said it’s possible that Trump got an appraisal that determined he would make more money by donating the land than he would by selling it. And it wouldn’t have to be as high as $100 million.

“If he claimed it was worth $10 million and he bought it for two or three million dollars, it’s conceivable that he came out ahead with this donation,” he said. “He actually could be better off financially. And this is not just for Donald Trump, but any donor in a comparable situation.”

Eminent Domain and Trump’s Wall

photo by Sandeesledmere

Sucamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall

Mashable quoted me in Sorry, Cards Against Humanity Can’t Stop Trump’s Wall. It opens,

As much as we may want to believe it, a card game company probably can’t save our country.

This week, owners of the irreverent (and kind of obnoxious, imo) Cards Against Humanity game unveiled their annual PR stunt and it has higher aspirations than last year’s pointless hole.

As part of the Cards Against Humanity Saves America campaign, it announced the purchase of “acres of land” on the U.S.-Mexico border and promised not to build a wall on it.

Going further, the company said that it had retained the services of legal representation specializing in property rights, “to make it as time-consuming and expensive as possible for the wall to get built.”

Sounds good, right? Guess there won’t be a wall!

Not so fast, patriots.

The government has a big ace up its sleeve when it comes to taking land from property owners. It’s called “eminent domain” and it’s right there in the constitution’s Fifth Amendment, below the part that people always talk about on lawyer shows. The Fifth Amendment states the government can’t take “private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

But it can still take land for public use, and it almost always does.

Government is mightier than the card game

The several law professors we talked to all came to the same forgone conclusion: the government will ultimately take that land from Cards Against Humanity.

“The power of eminent domain is considered to be a fundamental power of any government to use,” Professor of Law David Reiss at Brooklyn Law school said. And in this case, given the limited facts that were available to him, “ultimately the government would succeed.”

Over the past several decades, the judicial definition of eminent domain has expanded broadly. Historically, governmental use of eminent domain would fall under the umbrella of public use by using the acquired land to build a road or build a hospital. That’s changed in recent years, as the blanket phrase of “public use” has been used in eminent domain cases to include razing blighted urban areas or if the land could be seen as encouraging economic development.

Richard Epstein, Professor of Law at NYU, emphatically agreed that Cards Against Humanity would not stand much of a chance. Legally speaking, he saw, “the wall [will be seen] as a public good. There’s nothing you could do to resist them taking the land.”

Lynn E. Blais, Real Property Law Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, also thought that the government would easily win, but acknowledged how Cards Against Humanity could make an impact.

“They can’t stop the border wall for sure,” Blais said. Legally speaking, “it’s clearly for public use [but] they can challenge the process at every step if they want. That could take a long long time.”

And just as the company mentions in its announcement, it hopes to get in the way and meddle up Trump’s plans to build a wall, at least in that one plot of land it purchased. That delay tactic might prove exceptionally effective.

“They may not be looking to stop it, but merely to delay it. Delay can be very powerful. Sometimes delay can be as effective as winning the case,” Reiss said. “With enough money, it can be delayed for years.”

Did CAH fall down at the starting line? 

A few of the legal experts we talked to were adamant that Cards Against Humanity, in openly alluding to the fact that they hoped to make the wall construction “as time-consuming and expensive as possible,” invariably hurt their chances to gain favor with a judge. Basically, in flipping Trump off through a land buy, they exposed their bias and they might not receive a full case because of it.

“I wonder if they shot themselves in the foot if they admitted this was a delay tactic. Some judges might few that negatively,” Reiss said. “Judges wouldn’t look kindly on admitting delay.”

Epstein was very certain that the company’s promotion would hurt their chances of winning any case the federal government might bring against it.

“They are tacitly admitting that the goal is to block the president,” he said. “It’s one one of the dumber ideas I’ve heard of.”

He was certain that it would only invalidate any defense Cards Against Humanity tried to bring up, seeing as how the company already showed its actual intent. Still, he thought of it as a sign of the times, saying, “One of the consequences from the president acting like a crackpot means you get crackpot solutions.”

Blaise, however, believed the opposite side of this argument, and thought that land owners can do whatever they damn well please.

I don’t think it matters why you don’t want the government to take your land. As a property owner, you get to be as irrational as you want,” she said.

So you’re saying there’s a public use chance…

Even though a prospective case doesn’t look too promising for Cards Against Humanity, it still has avenues it can take to launch a defense of their new land. According to the legal experts we talked to, the most promising defense would be on whether the wall is really for public use. This is given that “public use” in the Fifth Amendment is not terribly defined and that arguments could readily be made that a border wall with Mexico might be more harmful than good.

“Public use is now often an incredibly broad term,” Reiss said. And, should the case go to federal court, the government’s potential case would invoke border security or immigration policy, which Reiss thought a judge would probably find compelling evidence.

Manafort’s Mystery Mortgage

photo by Kevin Dooley

NBC News quoted me in Manafort Got $3.5M Mystery Mortgage, Paid No Tax. It opens,

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort took out a $3.5 million mortgage through a shell company just after leaving the campaign, but the mortgage document that explains how he would pay it back was never filed — and Manafort’s company never paid $36,000 in taxes that would be due on the loan.

In addition, despite telling NBC News previously that all his real estate transactions are transparent and include his name and signature, Manafort’s name and signature do not appear on any of the loan documents that are publicly available. A Manafort spokesperson said the $3.5 million loan was repaid in December, but also said paperwork showing the repayment was not filed until he was asked about the loan by NBC News.

News of the missing documents comes as New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is taking a “preliminary look” at Manafort’s real estate transactions, according to a source familiar with the matter.

On August 19, 2016, Manafort left the Trump campaign amid media reports about his previous work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine, including allegations he received millions of dollars in payments.

That same day, Manafort created a holding company called Summerbreeze LLC. Several weeks later, a document called a UCC filed with the state of New York shows that Summerbreeze took out a $3.5 million loan on Manafort’s home in the tony beach enclave of Bridgehampton.

Manafort’s name does not appear on the UCC filing, but Summerbreeze LLC gives his Florida address as a contact, and lists his Bridgehampton home as collateral.

A review of New York state and Suffolk County records shows the loan was made by S C 3, a subsidiary of Spruce Capital, which was co-founded by Joshua Crane, who has partnered with Donald Trump on real estate deals. Spruce is also partially funded by Ukrainian-American real-estate magnate Alexander Rovt, who tried to donate $10,000 to Trump’s presidential campaign on Election Day but had all but the legal maximum of $2,700 returned.

The mortgage notice for the loan, however, was never entered into government records by the lender. A mortgage notice normally names the lender, and gives the interest rate, the frequency with which payments must be made, and the length of the mortgage.

Real estate experts contacted by NBC News called the omission “highly unusual,” though not illegal.

David Reiss, a professor at Brooklyn Law School who specializes in real estate law, said, “It would be totally ill-advised to not record the loan on the property that is being secured. … Recording the mortgage on the property protects the lender.” Without it, there’s no public record that the borrower owes money.

Trust for Trump

photo by David R. Tribble

US News & World Report quoted me in Here’s What We Know About Donald Trump’s Trust Fund. It opens,

With all the talk about how Donald Trump will be handling his vast business empire as he assumes the presidency, some questions were finally answered this week, and this much is clear: Donald Trump is putting his business assets in a trust.

“Through the trust agreement, he has relinquished leadership and management of the Trump Organization to his sons Don and Eric, and a longtime Trump executive, Alan Weiselberg,” says Sheri Dillon, a lawyer for the president-elect.

But what does that mean?

What is a trust to begin with? A trust is a legal structure with three main parties: The trustor, trustee and beneficiary. The trustor gives another party, the trustee, the right to manage the specified assets for the benefit of its designated beneficiaries.

“According to Trump, his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, as well as a business associate, would be the trustees. After transferring the assets to the trust, Trump could then be a beneficiary of the trust,” says David Reiss, professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. “The trustees administer the affairs of the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The beneficiary receives the income from the trust or the property within the trust.”

Trump has previously said his children will be the primary financial beneficiaries of the trust, but Trump made it clear that he planned on returning to the Trump Organization when his presidency is over. At that point, it’s possible Trump could have a fat check waiting for him, depending on the trust’s structure.

“The trust’s income or property could be doled out on an ongoing basis or deferred to some future point in time, depending on the terms of the trust,” Reiss says.

Clintons’ October Permitting Surprise

hand-stop-sign

Realtor.com quoted me in Final October Surprise: Clintons Make Untimely Mistake Renovating Their New Home. It opens,

This is proving to be the year that redefines the notion of the presidential campaigns’ “October Surprise.” First Donald Trump‘s hot mic/hot mess “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, followed by the ugly after affects. Then with just over a week to go before Election Day, Hillary Clinton‘s email woes returned, this time on Anthony Weiner‘s computer. Talk about lousy timing! Now, on the final day of October, one last surprise is rearing its head. Remember when the Clintons bought the home next door to their own in Chappaqua, NY, a few months back? Well, it turns out they renovated it without permits.

Breaking news alert!

According to public records, government officials received a complaint in early October about excavation happening at the Clintons’ new home. When an inspector arrived, he saw that a number of unpermitted upgrades were taking place, including a kitchen remodel and the installation of a new HVAC system.

Conspiracy theorists take note: Once the Clintons learned of this oversight, they took steps to fix it. And to be fair, the inspector on the case, William Maskiell, concedes that architects or contractors typically file for permits rather than the homeowners themselves. Still, he points out, “If you own the house, you’re responsible on everything that goes on with that house.”

In other words, the buck stops with the Clintons.

Granted, this blooper might seem small compared with the much larger problems on Hillary Clinton’s plate right now. Still, it can serve as an important lesson to all homeowners—many of whom might be tempted to sneakily sidestep those annoying permits before they start renovating. Honestly, are those little pieces of paperwork all that important?

It turns out they really are.

“I can’t believe a contractor working on a multimillion-dollar home wouldn’t pull permits,” says Mark Clements, a contractor at MyFixItUpLife.com. “It’s very much the contractor’s responsibility to gain those permits, and nearly unthinkably stupid not to.”

Here’s why: “On the surface, permits are inconvenient, but their value vastly outweighs what it takes to obtain them,” Clements explains. “They ensure everything from zoning variances to proper building practices are followed. And they make sure there is another set of expert eyes on the work being done, checking for everything from proper structure to code-approved electric to fire stops are safely installed.”

Once that’s done, a final inspection and certificate of occupancy, or “C of O,” is issued. The home may be reappraised—which could raise property taxes—”but it will also mean that when you list it for sale with three bathrooms, you can do so legally,” Clements adds.

A Stronger America, One Permit At A Time

So what’s the worst that could happen if you don’t bother with permits before you embark on a home improvement project? For one, if you’re caught, you could face fines.

“In some jurisdictions the penalties can be heavy, but it’s the stop-work order than can really hurt,” says David Reiss, a professor of Law at Brooklyn Law School and editor of REFinBlog.com. “Not only does it delay the completion of the work, but it may lead to additional costs from the contractor and subcontractors working on the project. And to top it off, it may interfere with the homeowners’ plans to leave their current home and move into their new one. The cascade effect among the affected parties can be painful.”

And even if you’ve already completed your renovation off the radar, you aren’t in the clear. If you decide to sell your home one day, unpermitted renovations can discourage buyers from biting—if they’re discovered.

“When buying a home, you always want to pay attention to any signs that there was unpermitted work done on the house,” says Reiss. “Is the certificate of occupancy for a one-family home, but there is a mother-in-law unit in the back? Are all of the houses on the block one story but your house is two stories? In such cases, you definitely want to dig a little deeper so you are not left holding the bag.”

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