Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has been vocal about the need to take care of U.S. veterans. He's said that if elected, he'll "put our service men and women on a path to success as they leave active duty."
But that's not what the Trump Institute, a get-rich-quick real estate seminar, did for Richard Wright, a senior master sergeant in the Air Force reserves who worked for the company in 2006 and 2007. Wright was deployed to Afghanistan in the spring of 2007. When he came home to his job, the Trump Institute fired him. "All of your absences," Wright's boss at the Trump Institute told him, had forced the company to "reevaluate your position with the Trump Institute." It is a violation of federal law to penalize an employee for absences caused by military service.
When Wright accepted a job at the Trump Institute in December 2006, he thought he'd be working directly with Trump.
"Having a chance to work with him was a dream come true," Wright, now 48, said of Trump in an email to The Huffington Post.
Dozens of former customers of the Trump Institute and Trump University, a real estate instruction program, have also described being told that Donald Trump was personally overseeing the programs that bore his name, and that instructors were "hand-picked by Mr. Trump." Judging from the information on the Trump Institute's (now defunct) website, it's easy to see why:
It was only after Wright started the job that he realized Trump had little to do with the day-to-day operations of the Trump Institute.
Trump provided his name, along with his image, his reputation, his video endorsements and his promises to help the Trump Institute lure potential customers and employees. But like many of the hundreds of businesses and real estate projects that have borne Trump's name, the Trump Institute was actually a joint venture between Trump and an outside company -- in this case, a Florida-based business called National Grants Conferences. Trump was paid franchise fees, but the details of his profits from the schools are a well-guarded secret.
Michael and Irene Milin, NGC's founders, spent decades in the get-rich-quick business before linking up with Trump. NGC promised to teach its clients how to access millions of dollars in "free money" from the government. In reality, NGC seminars were little more than elaborate sales pitches for yet more NGC events, and the company, which has since been dissolved, had a long history of legal troubles and fraud investigations that spanned multiple states.
NGC's free-money seminars provided the framework for the Trump Institute's signature offering, the Donald Trump Way to Wealth Seminar. Trump Institute clients paid as much as $35,000 to learn the "Donald Trump Way To Wealth," and to receive coaching from mentors like Wright.
In the clip below, from an infomercial that appears to date to 2006, Trump tells potential customers how important it is that they enroll in the Trump Institute. He also hits on the woman interviewing him.
That same year, the Trump Institute hired Wright as a tele-consultant (or "mentor," in Trump parlance). His job was to speak on the phone with clients who had purchased "memberships" in the Trump Institute, and give them advice about investing in real estate.
On paper, Wright and his fellow mentors were technically employed by Xylophone, LLC, a foreign limited liability company controlled by Irene Milin. But to the outside world, they were working for the Trump Institute.
Two months into the job, Wright was called up for active duty, and in early February 2007, he wrote to his boss, Jay Shavin, to say he would be deployed to Afghanistan starting around March 1.
In Afghanistan, Wright was assigned to the 451st Air Expeditionary Group at Kandahar Airfield, near the country's southern border with Pakistan. Wright was awarded three different medals for outstanding service in the six weeks he was overseas.
Wright arrived home to Florida on Monday, April 16, 2007. He asked his boss to approve two personal days for him to get his bearings, do laundry and so on.
Before Wright left for Afghanistan, he had approximately 40 different clients whom he was advising on how to buy real estate "the Trump Way." Like the other Trump Institute mentors, Wright was promised commissions on his clients' deals -- $250 each time a client bought property and rented it out "using Trump methods," and $750 each time a client bought and then sold a property, a process known as "flipping."
In his first week back home, Wright emailed some of his clients to let them know he was "back safe and sound," according to court documents.
On Monday, April 23, Wright got this note from Shavin:
I specifically told you NOT to contact your old clients. Jeff was in the office when we had the discussion. I also emphatically stated that you were not to contact your old clients. You are so concerned about your closings that do not exist, that your employment is in jeopardy. I told you that I put your former client into a deal that has not closed and would give it to you.
It is apparent that you do not listen to instructions. You are to report to my office tomorrow before you do anything. You have been here less than three months (deducting your time off for the Air Force Reserve). I find it insulting that you would make a request to be paid for time you did not work and/or personal time you did not earn.
You are still on probation. With all of your absences and inability to adhere to specific instructions, you force me to reevaluate your position with the Trump Institute.
Wright replied, in part: "I don't think your previous comments were called for or appropriate. I am a good mentor & have always been a team player & do not appreciate being spoken to that way."
"You needn't be offended by my remarks," Shavin wrote back. "Your employment is hereby terminated."
In subsequent emails, Shavin denied that Wright was fired because of his time in Afghanistan. He also said that any further emails from Wright would be considered "harassment."
A year later, Wright sued the Trump Institute and its parent company, Xylophone, for wrongful termination under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act. That law, passed in 1972, requires that military service members called up to active duty from civilian jobs "be restored to the job and benefits you would have attained if you had not been absent due to military service." Under the law, the burden falls on the employer to prove that it did not fire a service member for absences related to his or her military service.
The Trump Institute ultimately reached a settlement with Wright that forbids him from talking about the case. Shavin died in 2014. Lyn Miller, another former Trump Institute employee, said Shavin was "a knowledgeable and awesome guy."
Alan Garten, executive vice president and general counsel of the Trump Organization, provided a statement to HuffPost when asked about Wright's experience.
"The Trump Institute was a licensee of Trump University and was not owned or controlled by Mr. Trump or any of his companies," Garten said. "As such, Mr. Trump had nothing whatsoever to do with the employment of any of the Trump Institute’s employees or mentors, had no involvement in the development or enforcement of any of the Trump Institute’s employment policies and has no knowledge of this matter. Mr. Trump has always been a great supporter of the men and women who have served in this country’s armed forces and has devoted much of his campaign to improving the lives of veterans."
Trump's attempts to distance himself from the companies that paid him money and bore his name haven't shielded him from lawsuits over their conduct.
In 2013, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued Trump and Trump University for civil fraud. Included in his case filings were scores of complaints from Trump Institute clients. In California and New York, Trump University is facing allegations of fraud, and in the California case, the company faces a class action lawsuit with more than 5,000 plaintiffs.
HuffPost attempted to contact the Milins multiple times at the number listed for their charitable organization, the Milin Family Foundation, but there was never any answer.
Wright doesn't blame Trump for his firing, even though the Trump Institute bore Trump's name, benefited from Trump's endorsement and paid money to Trump in franchise and licensing fees.
"He was really just the name on the box & had nothing to do with the inner workings of the company," Wright said in an email to HuffPost. "At the time I really needed a job & I loved what I was doing."
This fall, Wright, who still invests in real estate, hopes to vote for Donald Trump for president.
"I am a HUGE Trump fan and supporter and think he would make an excellent leader," he said. Trump "is saying all the things that politicians have been afraid to say over the years. That is why they are nervous and siding against him. He threatens what they have worked so hard to build. As a veteran, I LOVE that he is wanting to make America great again."