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Scottish lawmakers decline to call for investigation into finances of Trump’s golf courses

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/3/2021 William Booth, David Fahrenthold
Protester dons giant Trump head outside Scottish Parliament
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LONDON —Scotland's Parliament on Wednesday voted against a proposal to urge an investigation into the finances of former president Donald Trump's Scottish golf courses — saying such questions should be left to police, without political pressure.

Trump owns two golf courses in Scotland, and he has invested more than $289 million into them without ever turning a profit. Some Scottish lawmakers want their government to seek an "unexplained wealth order" — a tool used to fight money laundering — to investigate where Trump got the money.

But First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's leader, has said those decisions should be made by law enforcement officials.

On Wednesday, as expected, Scotland's Parliament agreed with Sturgeon.

It rejected a nonbinding measure that called for Sturgeon to seek an investigation into Trump's finances. Instead, the Parliament voted 89 to 33 to stay out of the matter, saying that "to preserve the rule of law, there must not be political interference in the enforcement of the law."

The Scottish government has not said whether law enforcement authorities have sought such an investigation into Trump's courses on their own.

Despite the defeat of the measure, the debate was another signal that Trump is beginning a new chapter in life — with all the enemies he made as president and without the legal and diplomatic power that kept them at bay. Supporters of the Scottish bill say they were energized by Trump's impeachment shortly before he left office on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of his supporters.

An unexplained wealth order, if granted by the courts, would trigger an accounting investigation. It is not a criminal proceeding. But if the Trump Organization could not satisfy the courts that the money was clean, the Scottish government could, theoretically, seek to confiscate the properties.

The mechanism was designed to keep money launderers, mafia types and international criminals from making large investments in Scotland with dirty money.

Patrick Harvie, the Green Party lawmaker in the Scottish Parliament who called for the vote to pressure the government to pursue an unexplained wealth order, said the people of Scotland have a right to know where the money came from to purchase the golf resorts.

“It’s a very modest step,” Harvie told The Washington Post before the vote. Show the source of the money, he said, and if the books are clean, the matter is dropped.

But the lawmaker signaled that for some, it is no mere accounting audit.

“It’s a toxic brand . . . owned by a disgraced former president, who courted white supremacists, who incited violence,” Harvie said. He said Trump’s ownership of Scottish golf courses soils Scotland’s reputation.

“Why does Scotland want this as a tourist offering?” he said.

Donald Trump standing on top of a grass covered field: Donald Trump gestures to the media on the 17th fairway on the first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, on July 30, 2015. © Scott Heppell/AP Donald Trump gestures to the media on the 17th fairway on the first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, on July 30, 2015.

Nick Flynn, legal director of the online campaign organization Avaaz, which supports the call to investigate the funding of the golf courses, said Scotland certainly would want to know the source of the money if, say, Russian President Vladimir Putin purchased a resort. “It’s in the public interest to clear this up,” he said.

The Trump Organization did not provide a response to The Post.

In a statement to the Scotsman newspaper, Eric Trump, executive vice president of his father’s company, said: “At a critical time when politicians should be focused on saving lives and reopening businesses in Scotland, they are focused on advancing their personal agendas.”

The Trump Organization’s financial filings depict the two Scottish golf courses as massive sinkholes of money, which have now cost Trump more than $280 million without ever turning a profit.

Trump bought these properties before his run for office during a spending spree in which he shifted tactics from earlier phases of his career.

Before, Trump boasted he was “the king of debt” and relied heavily on borrowed money to limit his own financial risk — a common tactic in the real estate business.

But starting around 2006, Trump spent more than $400 million of his own money on real estate, including the two Scottish courses and 12 other properties, all bought without any public sign of a loan.

Trump and his family have said the money was all Trump’s own. Trump, they said, had made so much cash from other projects that he did not require any loans or outside investors.

“He had incredible cash flow and built incredible wealth,” Eric Trump told The Post in 2018. “He didn’t need to think about borrowing for every transaction. We invested in ourselves.”

Trump also reaped more than $170 million from the sale of his late father’s properties in 2004, according to a New York Times investigation.

Trump bought the land for the Aberdeen course in 2006 for $12.6 million. Since then, he has loaned the golf course an additional $58.6 million to fund the construction of the course and a small hotel.

His investment in Turnberry is even larger: He spent $68 million to buy the famed course in 2014 and has loaned it $150 million since then.

Neither course has turned a profit under Trump’s leadership, according to filings with the British government. But, as of late 2019, there were encouraging signs: Revenue was increasing at Trump’s clubs.

Then came covid-19, which ravaged the tourist business and triggered government-mandated shutdowns at both clubs. Turnberry is still in the midst of a second long-term shutdown, which began in January. The impact on the clubs’ revenue was devastating: It fell by more than 60 percent, as the two clubs took in $28 million less than they had in 2019.

Turnberry took another hit last month. After the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol, the most important institution in the British golf world, the R&A, said it would not award Turnberry the British Open golf tournament “for the foreseeable future.”

[Trump won’t leave golf quietly, so the sport will have to make a choice]

That ended Trump’s hopes that the Open would return to Turnberry, a prize he wanted so badly that — according to the New York Times — Trump asked his ambassador to Britain to press for it.

A spokesman for the union that represents Turnberry’s workers said the resort’s business should improve when lockdowns are lifted — as British tourists look to vacation without crossing borders. But, the spokesman said, the effect of Trump’s bitter last days in office could linger.

“We thought it was a tainted brand anyway,” the spokesman said, but this might have made it worse. “What people are going to decide to book vacations at Trump properties after what’s happened? I don’t know.”

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