ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Weak from heart surgery and a sepsis infection that would soon kill her, Patricia Paone was resting at home last summer when an apparition appeared on the TV — a famous businessman who had struck a deal with her husband years before.
"He's a crook!" she roared, according to a son who was with her that day. "I can't listen to this."
A quarter of a century had passed since Donald Trump refused to pay $1.2 million for the paving stones her late husband installed at Atlantic City's Taj Mahal casino. But for Paone and others like her — the dozens of contractors and their families who never got all they were owed — it could have happened yesterday.
The contractor who provided the onion domes atop the Taj had to eat $2 million in losses. The contractor who supplied the Carrara marble from Italy ended up filing for personal bankruptcy. The contractor who put in the bathroom partitions had to lay off his brother.
"Anytime I went to Atlantic City and I'd see that Trump sign, I'd think of the little guys," says bankruptcy lawyer Arthur Abramowitz who worked with contractors for years after the casino itself went bankrupt. "It wasn't just the money; a lot of these guys went into depression."
Of all the real estate and casino deals in Trump's long career, the Taj arguably sheds the most light on how the would-be U.S. president handles crises. It was his biggest gamble, the "eighth wonder of the world," as he dubbed it. And when it went south, his moves to avoid a financial hit to his empire hobbled many small businesses with little cushion to absorb the blow.
After the Taj opened in April 1990, the self-anointed "King of Debt" owed $70 million to 253 contractors employing thousands who built the domes and minarets, put up the glass and drywall, laid the pipes and installed everything from chandeliers to bathroom fixtures. A year later, when the casino collapsed into bankruptcy, those owed the most got only 33 cents in cash for each dollar owed, with promises of another 50 cents later. It took years to get the rest, assuming the companies survived long enough to collect.
"We got next to nothing," says Michael MacLeod, whose 40-person studio made the giant elephant statues at the entrance to Taj. "I took a big hit."
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks and Trump attorney Alan Garten did not respond to a list of questions about the candidate's Taj dealings.
Marty Rosenberg, former vice president of Atlantic Plate Glass, was among two dozen contractors and their survivors caught in the aftermath of the Taj bankruptcy who were interviewed by The Associated Press. He says the way Trump handled the contractors shows the candidate is shrewd and clever, qualities his fans seem to like in the presidential candidate.
But he says Trump won't get his vote.
"If ethics or morality has nothing to do with business," Rosenberg says, "he's a very good businessman."
Trump financed the Taj with high-interest "junk" bonds — a method even he disdained.
The real estate mogul told state regulators in 1988 that companies that sell junk bonds were nothing but "junk" companies. To finance the Taj, he claimed he could borrow at low prime rates from banks because, as he testified, big banks were calling him "all the time," begging him to take out loans.
Several months later, unable to tap the banks, he sold $675 million in junk bonds, agreeing to pay investors 14 percent interest annually.
Then he started spending lavishly. He ordered crystal chandeliers from Austria; hand-sewn carpets from Britain; 70 onion domes, one of them 50-foot high; the Carrara marble from Italy.
By the start of 1990, Trump was desperate for the contractors to finish so he could begin taking money from slots players and high rollers. Opening day was pushed back twice, to April 2, only six weeks before a $47 million bond payment came due.
For the contractors, the first signs of trouble came in February 1990. Regular checks for work completed stopped arriving in the mail.
Marty Rosenberg, who was installing floor-to-ceiling curtain walls of glass, picked up the phone in his Atlantic City office and called one of Trump's men overseeing construction.
"I'll check it out, Marty, and call you right back," the man said. A day later, he got his answer: The money's coming in two weeks.
The check never came.
Rosenberg, whom Trump would eventually owe $1.1 million, walked down the hall and entered his brother's office. "We got a problem," he said.
Five hundred miles away, in Ashtabula, Ohio, Robert Morrison of the Molded Fiber Glass Co. was pressing his workers to finish the domes and minarets and other faux Moorish ornaments in time for the April opening — and worrying about who was going to pay for all of it. An invoice sent a few weeks earlier for $1.4 million still hadn't been paid.
Many contractors didn't know what to think. Trump was denying he was in financial trouble: "I have a tremendous amount of cash," he told the Washington Post that March. Far from being overstretched, he told Newsweek, he was looking to expand: "I think the people with a lot of cash —and I have a lot of cash — are going to be able to make beautiful deals in the next few years."
"Naturally, you assumed you'd get paid," Molded Fiber Glass CEO Morrison wrote in a book about the Taj published in 1994. "Donald Trump was flamboyant, but he was an immensely successful contractor who paid his debts."
One of the reasons some contractors heard for the delay in pay: Trump said he needed to complete audits first to make sure they weren't overcharging. Trump had a reputation as a relentless haggler with contractors, always suspecting that they were cheating him.
The delays meant that contractors had to keep reaching into their pockets to pay their workers and suppliers. Some couldn't afford the negative cash flow, and the money squeeze started rippling out from company to company.
Desperate for cash, contractors became easy targets for a new offer from Trump: Agree to less than they billed, and he'd pay the lower amounts immediately.
'WE COULD LOSE EVERYTHING'
One of the hardest hit was John Millar, a marble supplier who was owed $3.9 million.
As he was walking into a meeting with contractors to share strategies about how to deal with Trump, landscaper Herman Caucci asked him what he planned to do: Stick it out in hopes of getting all he was owed, or take cash at a discount?
"I don't know, Herman, I need the money," Caucci recalls Millar responding before the March 1990 meeting. "I don't know what's going to happen to us. We could lose everything."
Caucci, who himself was owed more than $500,000, says Millar agreed to take 10 cents on the dollar, but court documents suggest he got about 30 cents on the dollar over the next year. Millar is deceased. His family wouldn't respond to repeated calls for comment.
Either way, the money wasn't enough. Millar eventually had to lay off workers, shut down his business Avalon Commercial, close many of his retail stores and borrow from friends to make ends meet, according to court documents and Millar's lawyers and former employees.
Trump managed to open the Boardwalk casino on April 2, 1990, though not quite as he had planned. The place was still unfinished, with the facade facing the Atlantic Ocean lacking much of its ornamentation.
He continued to dismiss rumors that he was in financial trouble, but regulatory documents released later showed otherwise.
His IOUs to companies doing work for the Taj, which included overdue bills from contractors, jumped to $76 million in April — up 80 percent in just four months. The tab would climb to $100 million the next month.
"I have a lot of money," he told The New York Times at the time, "and the Taj has a lot of money."
But the contractors weren't so sure anymore.
Morrison of Molded Fiber Glass was getting desperate for his money and so he turned to Irwin Tobman, a field supervisor in Atlantic City overseeing the installation of the domes and minarets. Tobman had been told earlier by a Trump official that the delay in sending the check was due to a "slight glitch."
"We got to get the job done," Tobman recalls the Trump guy saying. "Put in as many hours as you have to — unlimited overtime."
Tobman drove his staff hard, in three shifts — 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He pressed Trump's people again, and got a familiar answer: You'll get the money in two weeks, no problem.
Two months later, Molded Fiber Glass was still waiting. Trump was "stringing us along," says Tobman. "What he did was wrong."
On June 12, Molded Fiber Glass sued for the $3 million it was owed. A few days later, its lawyers ratcheted up the pressure; they threatened to remove the domes from the Taj and cart them away. The New York Post headline: "The Taj May Go Topless."
Lawsuits began piling up. Thomas Roofing, owed $1 million for HVAC work and a roof, argued that Trump officials committed fraud because they "misrepresented" that they had enough money to pay though they knew they didn't, thereby inducing the company to keep working.
Trump officials denied the charge, but the judge overseeing the case expressed frustration with the varying reasons they had given in depositions for not paying — and raised the specter of an investigation for perjury, according to published reports at the time.
A TERRIBLE BLOW
In August 1990, the truth finally came out.
Over his protests, regulators unsealed a devastating report written by Trump's own accountants: The "billionaire" had been burning through cash in his personal accounts so fast in the spring that he would have had nothing by end of the year if he didn't take drastic action. If he had to sell everything quickly, according to accountants Kenneth Leventhal & Co., he'd be worth as little as negative $295 million.
More contractors sued Trump, but it was too late to collect what they were due. In November 1990, Trump missed a payment to his junk bond investors. Eight months later, the Trump Taj filed for bankruptcy.
When the casino emerged from Chapter 11, Trump got a contract to manage it. He later folded the Taj into a publicly traded company holding other casinos. That company, eventually called Trump Entertainment Resorts, went on to lose hundreds of millions over a dozen years, collapsing into bankruptcy twice. But Trump raked in $82 million in fees and salary and bonuses, according to Fortune magazine estimates.
Others caught up in the Taj turmoil didn't fare as well.
George Jenkins, the bathroom partition man who had to lay off his brother, was shocked when Trump balked at paying the $232,000 he was owed, according to his daughter, Beth Rosser. Her father never made it out of seventh grade, she says, and built his businesses on trust, no contracts. He died in 2010.
"My father was old school," says Rosser. "It was hard for him."
Marble man Millar eventually stopped paying credit card bills, dues for a private club, then his state taxes. In 1996, he filed for personal bankruptcy. Barbara Kerr, a friend who had lent him $73,000, says that Millar had his hands in ventures outside of contracting, but that it was the work at the Taj that did him in. She recalls him breaking down in tears at a Cape May restaurant a few years after the casino's bankruptcy.
"He always managed to pay his bills," says Kerr. The personal bankruptcy was a "terrible blow" to him.