NEW YORK >> More than a dozen Donald Trump golf courses, hotels, casinos and private clubs have been honored with "Star Diamond" awards from the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences, a company that doles out shiny plaques representing "the most prestigious award of true excellence in hospitality."
The Trump Grill at Trump Tower has one. So does the Trump Buffet & Grill in the basement. Indeed the entire New York City skyscraper sports one of the plaques, for being "the ultimate residential building worldwide."
But when it comes to Trump, the academy isn't an independent observer.
The organization is run by Joseph Cinque, a longtime Trump acquaintance who goes by the nickname "Joey No Socks" and has a felony conviction for possessing stolen property.
As recently as last May, Trump himself was listed on the group's website as its "ambassador extraordinaire," and he appeared in a 2009 tribute video to Cinque in which he said: "There's nobody like him. He's a special guy."
But Trump told The Associated Press on Friday that he doesn't know Cinque well and was unaware of Cinque's criminal conviction.
"If a guy's going to give you an award, you take it," Trump said. "You don't tend to look up his whole life story."
An AP review shows that about half of the roughly 30 American Academy of Hospital Sciences trustees listed in the company's own press materials appear to be Trump friends and business associates.
At one point, Trump's two adult sons; the chief operating officer of the Trump Organization, Matthew Calamari; and Trump's longtime butler, Anthony Senecal; all served as trustees simultaneously.
Also listed are businessman Howard Lorber, who has called Trump his "hero," and actor Tony Lo Bianco, who said he believes he was introduced to Cinque years ago by Trump.
Trump said the board members connected to the Trump Organization are likely just the recipient of honorifics.
"I don't know that anybody goes," he said. "I've never gone to a board meeting."
While the American Academy of Hospitality Sciences has given awards to hotels and restaurants around the globe, including famed Manhattan restaurants Le Cirque and Jean-Georges, the company has also honored Mexican food, Poland's tourism board and Sepp Blatter, the former president of soccer's scandal-plagued governing body, for "making the world's greatest sport even better."
Still, the ties between Cinque and Trump appear to be close. Cinque served as a judge with Donald Trump Jr. in the 2008 Miss Universe pageant. The academy honored Donald Trump with a lifetime achievement award in 2013.
"My view is that this is primarily a marketing program," said Michael Petrone, who heads up AAA's ratings program, which gives out Five Diamond status to a fraction of the hotels inspectors review annually, including to some Trump properties.
A 1999 lawsuit against Cinque by a former business partner alleges award-winners paid promotional fees to be named in the group's glossy publications, calling the academy "merely the alter ego of Cinque."
A decade after that, Trump friend Stewart Rahr, a billionaire pharmaceutical wholesaler, sued Cinque and his organization, saying that they failed to publish a "man of the year" profile of his philanthropic efforts despite being paid a $25,000 fee. A judge ruled Rahr was owed the $25,000.
One former trustee, William Hetzler, founder of the German-American Hall of Fame, said he cut ties after he wasn't reimbursed for expenses related to a trip to Germany in which he connected Cinque to high-end chefs.
"If someone's not trustworthy I go the other direction," said Hetzler, whose Hall of Fame inducted Trump during a 2012 ceremony in Trump Tower.
Hetzler said Cinque sometimes gives awards for free and sometimes charges for the honor.
Trump told the AP that he's familiar with groups that try to sell awards as a marketing gimmick. But he said he has never paid Cinque's organization for its distinctions.
"Whoever received a reward qualified," said the woman who answered the phone at Cinque's company who refused to give her name. "Why don't you go after Hillary Clinton?"
A lawyer for the company, Stuart Perry, said Cinque wouldn't comment, but called the company "a pretty open book."
"The basic overall of the academy per se is dealing with five- and six-star properties," Perry said.
Perry is also a "trustee adviser" to the academy, as is a lawyer who represented Cinque in his failed attempts to appeal a 2008 drunken driving conviction in New Jersey.
According to a 1995 profile in New York Magazine, Cinque pleaded guilty to a felony after police broke down the door of his Manhattan apartment and found a trove of valuable stolen art, including prints by Marc Chagall. Court records show he pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property in 1990.