Trump Says Membership Ultimatum to Golfers Was ‘Negotiation’

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Donald Trump plays a round of golf after the opening of the Trump International Golf Links Course on July 10, 2012, in Balmedie, Scotland.

Photographer: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images
  • West Palm Beach trial gets under way over nonpayment of dues
  • Eric Trump likely to testify in defense of his father

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump says his words shouldn’t always be taken at face value because sometimes he’s just negotiating.

That’s his defense in a court fight with golfers who claim the billionaire real estate tycoon shafted them on membership dues at his Jupiter golf club.

A scheduled three-day trial got under way in West Palm Beach, Florida, Monday with a video deposition from Trump explaining why he told members who resigned that they would no longer be allowed to use any of the facilities at Trump National Golf Club Jupiter, although their contract said they could until they were paid back their deposits.

“The letter said that, yes,” Trump said in the video, played to the judge. Later in the deposition he said: “It’s called negotiation.”

The dispute is one of several lawsuits Trump’s embroiled in as he crisscrosses the country in a bid to garner voters in November’s national election. Former students sued him in New York and California claiming they were cheated with false promises into paying as much as $35,000 for real-estate seminars and workshops. New York’s attorney general has also sued, calling Trump University “straight up fraud.”

For a graphic on Trump’s lawsuits click here.

Last week, Trump resolved another case, settling with former campaign consultant Sam Nunberg, whom the presidential candidate accused of leaking information to the media.

The former members sued the golf club to recover almost $5 million in deposits that they say should have been refunded when Trump changed the membership rules after buying the money-losing venture from Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. in 2012. They pointed to a letter they received from Trump.

“If you choose to remain on the resignation list, you’re out,” Trump wrote. “As the owner of the club, I do not want them to utilize the club nor do I want their dues.”

The club members who are suing were on a list to resign from the club, and were to receive a refund of their deposit, once new members joined. Under the Ritz-Carlton rules, they could continue to use the club until they received their refunds. They paid $35,000 to $210,000 in deposits.

The membership agreements required the club to refund deposits within 30 days and when Trump failed to do that, he breached the contract, Brad Edwards, attorney for the former members, said at the start of the trial.

The members resigned years before the real estate billionaire bought the golf club and they gave up their rights, responded Herman Russomanno III, Trump’s lawyer. Donald Trump’s son, Eric, is likely to testify at the trial in defense of his father. Donald likely won’t take the stand.

Both sides agreed to waive a jury, so U.S. District Judge Kenneth Marra will decide whether Trump must pay the club’s former members back.

Last year, he ruled the three club members who sued could represent as many as 150 members on the resignation list who hadn’t received deposit refunds.

‘Ask Eric’

In a deposition, Trump said Eric handled negotiations with the members.
“I don’t really know exactly what it means,” he said of the letter he sent to members. “You’d have to ask Eric.”

Eric Trump said in a deposition that the only members who were turned away were the ones who hadn’t paid their dues.

“I think what was said in the letter and what we ended up doing were two different things,” Eric said. He’s likely to testify at trial.

When Donald Trump bought the club 16 miles north of West Palm Beach, he agreed to assume the liability of about $41 million in member deposits that were refundable. He held a meeting with the members in the club’s ballroom to offer a reduction in dues and the ability to use the membership at any of Trumps other clubs in exchange for members giving up their right to refunds. In the depositions, he and his sons said the structure of the memberships prevented them from investing in upgrading the club, which features a 7,531-yard Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course, as well as a spa, tennis, fitness center and restaurants.

“It’s a true luxury lifestyle,” Trump says in a welcome message on the club’s website.

The case is Hirsch v. Jupiter Golf Club LLC, 13-cv-80456, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Florida (West Palm Beach).

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