Inside Trump’s Most Valuable Tower: Felons, Dictators and Girl Scouts

By Zeke Faux and Max Abelson
June 22, 2016

A hedge-fund manager on the 28th floor who pretended to be dead when investors asked for their money reported to prison in January. A few weeks later, an investment adviser on the 17th floor was accused of running a Ponzi-like scheme. Thirteen floors up, a lawyer pleaded guilty this month to stealing millions of dollars from clients.

It was all happening at 40 Wall St., across from the New York Stock Exchange, behind golden capital letters proclaiming that this is THE TRUMP BUILDING.

“Iconic and wonderful,” Donald J. Trump said at a South Carolina town hall event last year, praising the 86-year-old Art Deco tower as one of his great possessions. The presumptive Republican presidential nominee also told fans in Maine that critics who mock his failed companies should focus instead on the Manhattan skyscraper. “They don’t want to talk about 40 Wall Street,” he said.

But the 72-story building has housed frauds, thieves, boiler rooms and penny-stock schemers since Trump took it over in 1995 in what may be the best deal of his career. No single property in his portfolio is more valuable than 40 Wall St., according to a Bloomberg valuation of his assets last year. And no U.S. address has been home to more of the unregistered brokerages that investors complain about, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission’s current public alert list.

Trump’s Tenants

Since Donald Trump took over 40 Wall St. in 1995, prosecutors have filed criminal charges against at least 29 people connected to 12 alleged scams tied to the building. Nine other firms have faced serious regulatory claims. Authorities prevailed in most but not all of the cases. Many were brought against principals, executives and other employees, not the firms themselves. Some are still pending. Here are the allegations, as well as descriptions of other firms in the tower that trade stocks and arrange loans.

Click to sort by
Type of business
Former tenant

Hover over boxes to view
company info below

Tap boxes to view
company info below

  • Floor:

  • Business:

  • Tenant:

  • Status:

Note: Companies didn’t necessarily occupy the entire floor; floor locations are approximate
Sources: Bloomberg reporting, NYC Department of Buildings

Cheap Rents

The tower was built to be the tallest in the world. It lost out, was foreclosed on and for a while was in the secret control of Filipino despots. Today, in addition to housing legitimate lawyers, architects and nonprofits, it offers a cheap way to grab a Wall Street address. The building’s average annual rent per square foot is $36, mortgage filings show, about $20 cheaper than the area’s average asking price and less than half of Midtown’s rates.

“They want that Wall Street address,” Donald Trump Jr., who’s in charge of leasing for the Trump Organization, which manages the building, told Commercial Property Executive in 2010. “We’re basically catty-corner from the stock market.”

Eleven new tenants were cited in that interview. Since then, the heads of four of them have been charged with fraud.

The billionaire’s son said in an e-mail that prices for 40 Wall St. beat the market for comparable downtown buildings, without specifying which ones he’s talking about. “40 Wall’s average annual rent continues to achieve a record of immense success with 97 percent occupancy, a vacancy rate virtually unheard of in downtown Manhattan,” he added. He and his father didn’t respond to other questions.

Penny Stocks

The investment adviser accused of a Ponzi-like scheme this year was John Bivona. The SEC claims he steered client money to a nephew who had been barred from the industry, another 17th-floor tenant. Both have denied wrongdoing. The lawyer charged with stealing from his customers was Luigi Rosabianca, whose victims allegedly include a woman suffering from schizophrenia.

Current executives at 40 Wall St. include a 29-year-old who made millions of dollars lending money to penny-stock companies. A financier fighting criminal fraud charges is on the 38th floor. On the 28th, where offices can be rented for $10 an hour, cash-advance firm Viceroy Capital Funding is run by a man awaiting sentencing for his role in a marijuana-smuggling ring.

At one point in 2010, according to regulators, brokers on the 34th floor were allegedly helping the financier on the 38th with a penny-stock scam; a brokerage on the 17th floor was involved in an unrelated fraud; and a bond-trading firm on the 42nd floor was bribing a Venezuelan official to win business.

Photographer: kworq/Getty Images

At the time, the 32nd floor was the headquarters of Trump University, the billionaire’s unlicensed school. It’s now being sued by New York’s attorney general for allegedly misleading people into signing up for real estate seminars that cost as much as $35,000. The candidate calls the case baseless. Trump Mortgage, on the 25th floor, was launched at the height of the housing bubble and closed in 2007.

The hedge-fund manager who played dead was Mark Malik, and he wasn’t even the first to try that excuse. One of the executives at Evergreen International Spot Trading Inc. on the 37th floor faked his suicide, according to federal prosecutors, who called another executive there “the Michael Jordan of investment fraud.” Their scam came to light when customers asked about their money after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Burr’s Address

Trump wrote in his 2008 book “Trump Never Give Up” that tenants at 40 Wall St. are “many of the top-notch businesses in the world.”

That was once the case. Aaron Burr, Alexander Hamilton’s nemesis, took an office at that site after founding the Manhattan Company, a forerunner of JPMorgan Chase & Co., in 1799. Work began on that spot 130 years later for the bank’s new tower, which was supposed to be the world’s tallest. It was bad timing. Not only did it lose the height race to the Chrysler Building, but Wall Street’s 1929 crash made renting out space difficult.

Lenders foreclosed in 1940. Six years later, on a foggy night, a U.S. Army plane crashed into the building, tearing a hole in the masonry. The tower passed through the hands of investors including William Zeckendorf before a group led by partners from the investment bank Loeb, Rhoades & Co. took over in 1966.

“We would have never called it ‘The Loeb Building at 40 Wall St.,’” John Loeb, 86, said in an interview last month. His own office in the building, he added, was “very austere, very, if you will, well-dressed.”

Marcos Money

The Loebs sold the tower in 1982 to an entity that was hiding the wealth of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. In the middle of the night, Imelda made a visit in her limousine with perma-tanned movie star George Hamilton, according to Joseph Bernstein, her real estate lawyer. She took in 40 Wall St. and declared she was “kind of proud of it,” Bernstein said. After the couple was exiled in 1986, the tower was tangled up in lawsuits, auctioned off and foreclosed on again.

The intrigue even roped in Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi. When the Marcoses were indicted in 1988 for allegedly diverting money from the Philippines, Khashoggi was charged with helping them cover up the building’s ownership. After Khashoggi and Imelda Marcos were acquitted, she walked on her knees through St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Bernstein recalled, and the arms dealer threw a lamb feast with belly dancing.

By 1993, the building was a “vertical ghost town” whose windows were dark while the rest of the Financial District glowed, the Associated Press reported. Kinson Properties, an arm of a Hong Kong-based footwear and real estate company, acquired it that year. Trump pounced when Kinson had trouble turning the building around, he wrote. He said he paid $1 million for the right to lease the building through 2059.

A few weeks before Trump signed the lease for 40 Wall St., friends threw him a lunch to celebrate his rebound, praising his comeback and even joking about a possible career in politics.

The land on which the building sits is owned by a group that includes members of Germany’s Hinneberg family, whose fortune came from shipping. “They realized that after a string of losers who had owned the building, I had the integrity of their spectacular property first and foremost in my mind,” Trump wrote in his book.

Career Renovation

Trump was in the process of renovating his career when he took over the tower in 1995. The billions of dollars of debt that fueled his 1980s rise almost wiped away his empire at the beginning of the next decade. His casinos went bankrupt, and he lost his yacht -- built for Khashoggi. But a deal with lenders saved him from ruin. A few weeks before Trump signed the lease for 40 Wall St., friends threw him a lunch to celebrate his rebound, praising his comeback and even joking about a possible career in politics.

Trump’s plan worked. He found new tenants for the building and was collecting about $20 million a year in rent by 2008, he wrote in the book. The tower is now worth $550 million, according to a Bloomberg evaluation based on rental income and what buyers typically spend on similar leaseholds. He currently pays $1.65 million a year in ground rent to the landowners. In July, he refinanced $160 million of debt against the building with Ladder Capital Corp., public records show.

Even if some 40 Wall St. tenants have gone to prison, the building has done better than other Trump endeavors. Trump Entertainment Resorts Inc., the casino operator he founded, emerged from bankruptcy-court protection this year. He lost control of Trump Shuttle, his airline, in the early 1990s. Trump Vodka, the liquor he licensed even though he despises alcohol, collapsed after the 2008 financial crisis. Trump Steaks disappeared around the same time.

‘I Cried’

A cheap way to get a 40 Wall St. address is to grab space on the 28th floor, which is broken up into small offices. The firms listed in the lobby directory for that floor include Your Trading Room, a foreign-exchange operation ordered shut by an Australian court in 2012; Asian AIM Incubator Co., which Malaysian regulators put on a list of possible scams; Stilas International Law, whose founder was banned from practicing law in Virginia; and Ero Capital Corp., run by a man convicted of credit-card fraud.

Photographer: Ryan D. Budhu/Getty Images

Even one of the four Cushman & Wakefield brokers who handle leasing for the skyscraper is a felon. Jeffrey Lichtenberg admitted accepting a bribe in 1999 after an investigation of bid-rigging in the construction business. He declined to comment.

The tower also houses a Girl Scouts office and an elementary school with its own entrance. Higher up, the New York panoramas can bring grown men to tears.

“You will die for that view,” said Earl David, a lawyer who worked on the 60th floor in the 1990s. When Trump didn’t renew his lease, he said, he wept. “I was crying -- one of the first times I cried.”

David was convicted of running an immigration-fraud mill and was sentenced to prison in 2013.

The Many, Many Myths of Donald Trump