NEW YORK -- For years, Donald Trump has boasted that his casinos are free of the taint of organized crime, using this claim to distinguish his gambling ventures from competitors. But Trump's casinos turn out not to be so squeaky clean.
One of his prime Atlantic City developments, the Trump Plaza Hotel & Casino, relied on a partnership with two investors reputedly linked to the mob, prompting New Jersey regulators to force Trump to buy them out. And he employed a known Asian organized crime figure as a vice president at his Taj Mahal casino for five years, defending the executive against regulators’ attempts to take away his license, according to law enforcement officials.
As the famously brash developer now considers a run for the presidency, this history could complicate his efforts to project an image of a trusted power in the business world. It exposes a seamy underside to Trump's rise to fortune -- one that involved intimate links to unsavory characters.
As voters learn more about such links between Trump and reputed organized crime figures, "it will get more difficult for him," says John Geer, a political science professor at Vanderbilt University. "Under that withering examination, his past associations and troubles will all emerge and could make it tough in a Republican primary."
In his 2000 book, “The America That We Deserve,” released to coincide with an earlier prospective presidential campaign, Trump boasted:
“One thing you can say about Trump, as the holder of a casino gaming license, is that I’m 100 percent clean -- something you can’t say with certainty about our current group of presidential candidates.”
Trump has sought to lean on such claims while sometimes intimating that industry competitors are themselves tainted by mob associations -- in order to saddle them with restrictions on their casino licenses.
On Oct. 5, 1993, Trump told a Congressional panel examining the rise of Indian casinos -- then, a rapidly emerging threat to Atlantic City -- that the proprietors were vulnerable to organized crime.
It is “obvious that organized crime is rampant,” Trump told the panel, according to a transcript, drawing a direct contrast to his own operations. “At the Taj Mahal I spent more money on security and security systems than most Indians building their entire casino, and I will tell you that there is no way the Indians are going to protect themselves from the mob.”
That broadside garnered Trump a reprimand from then-House Interior Committee Chairman George Miller, a California Democrat, who complained that he had never heard more irresponsible testimony. But Trump continued, predicting that Indian casinos would spawn “the biggest crime problem in the nation’s history.”
Trump’s neglected to mention that his initial partners on his first deal in Atlantic City reputedly had their own organized crime connections: Kenneth Shapiro was identified by state and federal prosecutors as the investment banker for late Philadelphia mob boss Nicky Scarfo according to reports issued by New Jersey state commissions examining the influence of organized crime, and Danny Sullivan, a former Teamsters Union official, is described in an FBI file as having mob acquaintances. Both controlled a company that leased parcels of land to Trump for the 39-story hotel-casino.
Trump teamed up with the duo in 1980 soon after arriving in Atlantic City, according to numerous news reports and his real estate broker on the deal, Paul Longo. The developer seized on a prime piece of property and partnered with Shapiro and Sullivan, but the state’s gambling regulators were concerned enough about Shapiro and Sullivan’s mob links that they required Trump to end the partnership and buy out their shares, according to several Trump biographies.
Trump's office did not respond to requests for comment. Both Sullivan and Shapiro died in the early 1990s.
Trump later confided to a biographer that the twosome were “tough guys,” relaying a rumor that Sullivan, a 6-foot, 5-inch bear of a man, killed Jimmy Hoffa, the Teamsters boss who disappeared in July 1975.
“Because I heard that rumor, I kept my guard up. I said, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be friends with this guy.’ I’ll bet you that if I didn’t hear that rumor, maybe I wouldn’t be here right now,” Trump told Timothy L. O’Brien, the author of “TrumpNation” and current national editor of The Huffington Post.
Trump told a different story to casino regulators who were deciding whether to grant him the lucrative gambling license.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with these people,” he said about Shapiro and Sullivan during licensing hearings in 1982, according to "TrumpNation." “Many of them have been in Atlantic City for many, many years and I think they are well thought of.”
Sullivan's unsavory reputation did not stop Trump from later arranging for him to be hired as a labor negotiator for the Grand Hyatt, a hotel project on Manhattan’s East Side, according to People magazine and the Los Angeles Times. Trump also introduced Sullivan to his own banker at Chase, though he declined to guarantee a loan to Sullivan, reported the L.A. Times.
Longo, the real estate broker Trump used in Atlantic City on the Trump Plaza deal, says he wasn’t aware of Shapiro or Sullivan having any mob ties, and insisted Trump didn’t have any problems at all obtaining his gaming license. “In AC, you always had to be careful who you were dealing with, but Donald did things on the level,” Longo told The Huffington Post.
But Wayne Barrett’s biography, “Donald Trump: The Deals and the Downfall,” alleges Trump considered using Shapiro as a go-between to deliver campaign contributions to Atlantic City mayor Michael Matthews, in violation of state law.
Casino executives are prohibited from contributing to Atlantic City political campaigns in New Jersey. Sullivan later claimed that he was present when Trump proposed funneling contributions through Shapiro. Trump denied the allegation in an interview with O’Brien. Matthews, who was later forced out of office and served time in prison for extortion, did not return calls from HuffPost.
Barrett also reported that Trump once met Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno, front boss of the Genovese crime family, at the Manhattan townhouse of their mutual lawyer -- infamous J. Edgar Hoover sidekick Roy Cohn. The author explained that Salerno’s company supplied all the concrete used in the Trump Towers in New York.
At the time of its publication, Trump slammed Barrett's book as “boring, nonfactual and highly inaccurate.”
Barrett's book prompted New Jersey casino regulators to investigate some of its allegations, but the state never brought any charges.
"If there had been a provable charge, they would have brought it,” said former casino commission chairman Steven P. Perskie.
While Trump was making his bold statements about the integrity of the Taj Mahal at the 1993 congressional hearing on Indian gaming, a reputed organized crime figure was running junkets for the hotel, bringing in well-heeled gamblers from Canada. Danny Leung, the hotel’s former vice president for foreign marketing, was identified by a 1991 Senate subcommittee on investigations as a member of the 14K Triad, a Hong Kong group linked to murder, extortion and heroin smuggling, according to the New York Daily News.
Canadian police testified at a 1995 hearing before New Jersey’s casino commission that they observed Leung working in illegal gambling dens in Toronto alongside Asian gang leaders. Leung, who denied any affiliation with organized crime, had his license renewed by the commission over the objection of the Division of Gaming Enforcement.
Back in the early 1980s, just as Trump was dipping his toes into Atlantic City real estate, the developer did express concern to the FBI that his casino ventures might expose him to the mob and “tarnish his family’s name.” He even offered to place undercover FBI agents in his casinos, according to an FBI memo uncovered by TheSmokingGun.com. When Trump asked one of the agents his “personal opinion” on whether he should build in Atlantic City, the agent replied that there were “easier ways that Trump could invest his money.”
That proved prescient: In early 2009, Trump’s casino company in Atlantic City filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, just days after Trump resigned from the board.