“Whale hunting”: Inside Deutsche Bank’s pursuit of business with Trump

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Family members of former President Donald Trump were considering purchasing a Florida golf course in 2011 when they were introduced to Rosemary Vrablic, a banker at Deutsche Bank. 

They were looking for a loan, and she was looking to cultivate business with high net-worth clients, she testified during Trump’s New York civil fraud trial Wednesday.

“We are whale hunting,” she wrote in an email to other bank executives in November 2011, referring to efforts to bring in Trump business. 

Vrablic ultimately oversaw a relationship with the Trumps that led to three major loans at the heart of a sweeping fraud case against Trump, his two adult sons and their company. His defense team has said the bank performed its own due diligence and concluded independently that the loans were good business. New York Attorney General Letitia James says—and the judge in the case has found—that regardless of loan performance, Trump is liable for fraud for providing vastly inflated estimates of his net worth to the bank, in order to receive more favorable loan terms. 

The defense has also argued the bank was interested in fostering Trump as a client, believing it would lead to more business with him and other high-net worth individuals in his social circle. Vrablic’s testimony bolstered that argument Wednesday.

Vrablic was first introduced to the family in 2011 through Ivanka Trump’s husband, Jared Kushner, according to trial testimony and documents shown as exhibits. Late that year, Trump personally sent to a Deutsche Bank executive a financial statement at the center of the case, which the state says was rife with fraud.

By then, Vrablic had developed a strong relationship with Ivanka Trump, who was originally included as a defendant in the case, and who was Vrablic’s “main liaison” to the Trump family. A New York appellate court dismissed claims against Ivanka Trump in June, ruling that they were barred by the state’s statute of limitations.

Ivanka Trump testified on Nov. 8 that she was also interested in cultivating Vrablic.

“I had heard that Rosemary was a very formidable banker with a lot of experience and a great person to have a relationship with,” Ivanka Trump testified. 

The pair worked together on a trio of deals: a $125 million loan related to the 2011 purchase of the Doral golf course in Florida, a $107 million loan tied to Trump’s Chicago tower — plus a $45 million expansion in 2014 — and a $170 million loan in 2013 related to Trump’s transformation of the Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., into a hotel. 

Along the way, Vrablic repeatedly wrote in support of the business relationship. 

In 2013, Anshu Jain, who was at the time the co-CEO of Deutsche Bank, met with Donald Trump at his eponymous New York tower. Ivanka Trump and other executives at the company also attended the lunch.

In a briefing prepared by Vrablic for Jain before the meeting, she noted Donald Trump was a “passionate golfer, with a long single-digit handicap” and she outlined, “key asks” for Jain to make.

“Strategically discuss leveraging Mr. Trump’s personal and professional network within the real estate industry in NY for the benefit of” the bank she wrote, describing one such ask.

Ivanka Trump recalled the meeting similarly during her testimony.

“I recall it being a very, very friendly meeting and him encouraging us to do more business with Deutsche Bank,” Ivanka Trump said. “I think it was a little bit of a sales call, stopping by, talking about the different deals we had pending, that I’m assuming Rosemary had briefed him on, and suggesting that we do additional business with the bank.”

Jain later wrote to Donald Trump to thank him for the meeting.

“It was a pleasure to see your delight in the build out of your family holdings, and your justified pride in having your children in the business,” Jain wrote in a March 2014 letter, shown during the trial.

One email written by Ivanka Trump, shown at trial, expressed excitement at the low interest rates the company had secured through Deutsche Bank.

“It doesn’t get better than this,” Ivanka Trump wrote. The Trumps’ attorneys have argued the excitement was mutual, and that the bank was happy with the Trump properties’ performance as the loans matured.

Vrablic’s testimony and exhibits shown Wednesday supported that claim.

“My direct boss, Michele Fassiola (he’s Italian) would like to call you and your Dad to thank you for being such great clients and for all the business we have been doing together,” Vrablic wrote to Ivanka Trump in one 2014 email. “Your family is in the Top 10 revenue generating names of Asset and Wealth Management now and he is thrilled with how it’s grown.”

Vrablic described continuing efforts to expand the bank’s business with the Trumps until he was elected president, when the bank decided to pull back.

“They did not want to increase their exposure at that time,” Vrablic said, saying the bank wanted to avoid heightened scrutiny. “It was an unprecedented situation to have a customer who was going to become president of the United States.”

Lawyers for the Trumps have repeatedly asked the judge in the case to halt the trial, citing Deutsche Bank’s due diligence related to Trump’s finances and satisfaction with the Trump loan relationship. Lawyers for the state have repeatedly pushed back, saying those factors are unrelated to the unresolved allegations in the case.

“They do not involve fraud directed at Deutsche Bank. They involve fraud directed at creating false financial records, false financial statements and insurance fraud,” Kevin Wallace, a lawyer for the New York attorney general, said Wednesday. “So testimony from a Deutsche Bank witness would not be a basis for directing a verdict under any circumstances.”

Wallace pointed out that bankers had also testified that they relied on the Trumps to be truthful in their finances. One former Deutsche Bank executive said as much on Oct. 11.

“I assumed that the representations of value of the assets and liabilities were broadly accurate,” said the former executive, Nicholas Haigh, who analyzed risk for loans to high-net-worth individuals,.

The judge, Arthur Engoron, appeared to side with the state Tuesday, before Vrablic’s testimony.

“I would just basically point out that the mere fact that the lenders were happy doesn’t mean that the statute wasn’t violated. It doesn’t mean other statutes weren’t violated,” Engoron said.

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