A small-time scam artist gave Trump a mansion for $0. Why?

Los Angeles mansion transferred to a New York billionaire for no money at all

Published April 22, 2018 10:30PM (EDT)

Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference February 23, 2018. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)
Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference February 23, 2018. (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

This article originally appeared on Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting

reveal-logo-black-on-whiteIn this enclave of celebrity and tremendous wealth, it was a real estate megadeal that made little sense.

In 2008, an Egyptian man with a reputation for small-time financial scams bought an opulent 10,400-square-foot mansion on famed Rodeo Drive.

Sale price, according to public records: $10.3 million.

Then, six weeks later, he transferred the mansion to a shell company set up by a brash New York billionaire — for no money at all.
The billionaire was Donald Trump. The home was next door to another mansion he’d purchased for $7 million a year earlier and just down the street from The Beverly Hills Hotel, where two women say they had affairs with Trump around the same time.

Trump held the property for less than a year, then sold it for $9.5 million — completing what, on paper at least, appears to be the best real estate deal Trump ever made.

But people involved in the sale say it was all a mistake.

In a filing with Los Angeles County, Egyptian émigré Mokless Girgis claimed that his name was put on the deed to the mansion by mistake. That’s why no money changed hands when he deeded the property to Trump, the document says.

This swirl of transactions involving the future U.S. president defied the norms for high-end real estate deals, according to five real estate lawyers who reviewed the deal for Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

All the experts said they had seen mistakes on deeds — but only minor errors of spelling and punctuation. None had ever heard of a mistake in which a multimillion-dollar property was deeded to the wrong buyer.

The sale of a luxury home typically involves brokers, notaries, lawyers and agents for title and escrow, the experts said. Trump and his team are no strangers to major real estate deals. With all that scrutiny, the experts asked, how could everyone fail to see the wrong name was on the deed?

“You are very careful to make sure the deed is accurate,” said San Francisco lawyer Kevin Rose, who handles major real estate transactions. “The first thing you check is, ‘Is it going to the right party?'”

But people involved in the Rodeo Drive transaction say that it happened and that Trump actually did pay for the property.

“Human error is not implausible and happens all the time,” said Igor Korbatov, the Los Angeles attorney who brokered the sale. “Notwithstanding the opinion of your experts.”

The Trump Organization declined to comment.

Ross Delston, a Washington, D.C.-based consultant on financial crimes to the International Monetary Fund, said the deal included “many facets that don’t add up.” He said the deal warrants further scrutiny.

“Anyone investigating the transactions of the president and his minions would want to follow up on the numerous oddities and red flags that this series of transactions raises,” he said.

In the years leading up to the Beverly Hills transactions, Trump’s business empire was under financial siege over troubled projects funded with piles of debt. There were problems, too, in a high-profile outpost: Ratings for Trump’s reality television show, “The Apprentice,” were in steep decline.

Looking for a spark, NBC moved the New York-based program to Los Angeles for the 2007 season. While the show was in production, the New York billionaire played the part of local celebrity — and L.A. booster.

“L.A. is sex, movies and cars,” Trump declared in the opening episode.

When in L.A., Trump stayed in a rented mansion on Mulholland Drive in the Hollywood Hills, near where his show’s contestants were housed.Episodes were filmed on Santa Monica Beach, at the Hollywood Bowl and even in the press room of the Los Angeles Times. Off camera, Trump was a man about town: He attended the Golden Globe awards and was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Trump also went shopping for luxury real estate. In February 2007, he paid $7 million cash for a five-bedroom Colonial on North Canon Drive across the street from The Beverly Hills Hotel. He still owns the house, though he sometimes stayed at the hotel, the locale of his alleged liaisons with adult film actress Stormy Daniels and Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal.

About a year later, the place around the corner from his home came up for sale.

Behind tall hedges, the Rodeo Drive home’s gleaming white exterior featured Greek Revival-style porticos. It had six bedrooms, six bathrooms and a half-acre lot with a pool, spa and tennis court.

For decades, it had been owned by the family of Omar Bongo, the late dictator of the African nation of Gabon. In March 2007, it sold for $10.5 million to a trust controlled by Leonard and Selma Fisch.

The Fisches are prominent Los Angeles real estate investors and political donors. They have given more than $250,000 to GOP candidates and causes, records show. They were guests at the White House when George W. Bush was president and accompanied him on a trip to Israel, Selma Fisch said in a phone interview. Their daughter, Lisa Korbatov, is a GOP activist and president of the Beverly Hills Unified school board.

The Fisches never lived in the home, Selma Fisch said, but they threw some big parties there. A year after buying it, records show they sold the mansion to a company called Global Management Alliance, which Mokless Girgis had set up in Nevada.

People who encountered Girgis in Los Angeles in those years recall a glib, handsome man who drove a Mercedes and spun self-aggrandizing stories: He was a pop star in Egypt; he was a big-time real estate developer. Sometimes, those false stories were part of an effort to attract cash for bogus business schemes, unhappy investors complained. At the time, he was earning about $48,000 per year as the pastor of a tiny church, according to a private investigator hired by creditors.

The Fisches signed the deed transferring the home to Girgis’ company in March, but it wasn’t until July 11, 2008, that they finally filed the deed with the county.

The sellers paid $11,385 in transfer tax, due when a property changes owners. No loan documents were filed, indicating a cash sale. At that point, the mansion seemingly belonged to Girgis, free and clear.

Then, on Aug. 27, 2008, Girgis went to an escrow office in Beverly Hills and signed a new deed, transferring ownership of the mansion to a Delaware corporation called 806 Acquisitions LLC. The name of the man behind that shell company wasn’t made public at the time, but a year later, Trump signed a filing with the state of California identifying himself as the owner.

A second sale of the mansion would have triggered another hefty transfer tax payment, experts said. But when Girgis filed the new deed, he declared that no tax was due because the ownership of the mansion had not changed: He merely wanted to correct the name of the property owner.

Igor Korbatov, who is the Fisches’ son-in-law, said Girgis had been a prospective buyer and made an offer on the mansion earlier in 2008. Anticipating a sale, the Fisches signed a deed, but the deal fell through, he said.

“Some time goes by, and that transaction falls apart. He doesn’t have the funds to close it,” Korbatov said. The signed paperwork was filed away and not submitted to the county.

Months later, when Trump bought the property, the wrong deed — the one with Girgis’ company name on it — was filed, he said. A corrected deed was filed when the error was discovered, Korbatov said.

He said the mistake was made by the real estate companies that processed the transactions and his in-laws had nothing to do with it.

“It appears from our records that the error was completely our responsibility,” the title company, First American Title Insurance, said in a statement.

The company provided no details and didn’t answer follow-up questions asking how the error was made.

Another real estate firm, Escrow of the West, also was involved in the transactions, records show. In essence, the company’s job was to make sure the buyer actually had paid for the property before the deed was filed.

At the time, a senior escrow officer named Susan B. Nichols supervised the company’s Beverly Hills office. In an interview, Nichols, who is now retired, said she reviewed every deed processed by the office but had no memory of the Trump deals.

In looking over copies of the deeds, Nichols said she never would have approved filing the document granting the house to Girgis unless she had seen a sales contract with Girgis’ name on it — and only after payment had been deposited in an escrow account. She also said she would have approved signing the house over to Trump only if “it was kosher.”

The experts consulted by Reveal said this outcome was theoretically possible — but so implausible that they had never heard of such a thing.

“They would have so much liability,” said Linda Alioto, a real estate attorney in California’s wine country, “which is why I find it hard to believe they would be so sloppy.”

More than anything else, it was Girgis’ presence in the deal that raised red flags for the experts consulted by Reveal.

How did a preacher with a $48,000-a-year salary become a prospective buyer in the first place? High-end real estate companies vet the net worth of prospective buyers before even showing them luxury homes: Typically, they want a lender’s preapproval for a mega-mortgage or proof of funds if a cash deal is contemplated.

Nor did the experts understand why the sellers would sign their names to a deed giving the house to Girgis before he put up the money to buy the house.

“The big question is, how did he get in the middle of this?” said San Francisco lawyer Anthony D. Ratner.

Girgis was born in Egypt in 1966, records show, son of a devout member of the nation’s Coptic Christian minority. The family came to the U.S. when Girgis was a boy and eventually settled in Los Angeles.

Girgis sold real estate, set up a trucking company and met with failure and financial problems. A real estate client accused him of a $16,000 fraud, and he settled out of court. A leasing company won a $43,000 judgmentafter Girgis stopped making payments on his trucks. The government hit him with nearly $17,000 in tax liens, public records show.

In 2000, Girgis was hired as the pastor of Westside Baptist Church, a 15-member congregation where his father once had preached. He began moonlighting, pitching investment schemes to parishioners and other acquaintances.

In a lawsuit, parishioner Richard Higginson said he loaned $150,000 to Girgis in 2006 so the pastor could move forward with a can’t-miss project: a multimillion-dollar chain of “five-star assisted living centers” for governors, actors and other wealthy retirees.

Girgis promised he soon would turn that investment into $250,000. Higginson said he invested at the urging of his then-girlfriend, Charlene Capetillo, who sang at the church.

“I thought he was a man of God,” Capetillo said.

To her, Girgis confided that he was more than a small-time pastor. A pop CD he had recorded was a huge hit in the Arab world, and he had become “the No. 1 recording artist in the Middle East,” she quoted him as saying. Fans mobbed him at overseas airports, he claimed.

He also claimed he was a real estate magnate, saying a teardown was underway on a property in Beverly Hills. He never revealed the address, Capetillo said.

No celebrity retirement homes were built, and Girgis never repaid the loan, though Higginson and Capetillo often called him about the money. If they got him on the phone, he would promise to repay them soon, they said. Eventually, they took Girgis to court, where a judge ruled in 2012 that he had committed fraud. Higginson is still after his $150,000.

Some people who were on the inside of the Beverly Hills home sale professed not to know Girgis. Selma Fisch, the mansion’s former co-owner, said Trump had bought the house and she knew nothing about an Egyptian man being involved.

Berta Negari, who was listed as the buyer’s real estate agent, said, “I don’t know about the Egyptian guy.”

After one season on the West Coast, “The Apprentice” moved back to New York. Trump never lived in the Beverly Hills mansion. In the summer of 2009, he sold the home for $9.5 million — $800,000 less than the previous year’s price — to a Swiss entity associated with the family of Eka Widjaja, an Indonesian billionaire financier. The sale was in cash.

Trump lawyer Michael Cohen filed the legal papers for the shell company involved in the mansion’s purchase, and he notarized the deed when Trump sold the property, records show. He didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

As Trump was selling the home, Girgis lost his job at the church.

Outside of this one transaction, he has no known connection to Trump. According to acquaintances, the 51-year-old Girgis now lives in either Egypt or Belgium. He did not respond to multiple voice, email and Facebook messages or to a message left with his brother.

In 2012, records show he was working as “ambassador to the United States” for a Brussels-based foundation set up to aid Arab refugees.

Its founder is a man who claims great wealth and styles himself “His Highness Prince Jamal Al Noaimi.”

Al Noaimi’s foundation briefly was registered with a United Nations agency that promotes ethical business practices, but it was delisted for breaches of U.N. integrity measures.

“Subsequent research associated the foundation with scams,” a U.N. spokesman wrote in an email.

Nor is Al Noaimi related to the royal House of Saud, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia says.

“Al Noaimi is not a member of the royal family,” a spokeswoman for the kingdom wrote in an email. “Therefore, it would not be appropriate to refer to him as a ‘Prince.’ ”

Last month, a reporter inquired about Girgis at the charity’s office in Brussels. But officials there said they thought Girgis was in the U.S. — and they were looking for him, too.

“He has all the documents for the organization in the United States, and we don’t know what he’s doing with them,” said Hecham Abdulkarim, the charity’s vice president.

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