The project seemed like a natural for Donald Trump. On March 24, 1994, a messenger delivered a proposal to his glittering office tower on Fifth Avenue for a lavish casino and golf resort on an Indian reservation in southern California.
The project would be built on the Chemechuevi reservation, and it would overlook Lake Havasu, a popular tourist destination on the Arizona border. Gambling and golf wouldn’t be the only temptations, either. When high rollers tired of gaming halls, they could indulge in everything from horseback riding to jet skiing to simply relaxing in their posh accommodations in a 500-room hotel.
There was, however, one glaring problem. Soon after the proposal arrived at Mr. Trump’s office, officials at P&G Enterprises, an obscure development firm, claimed the plan had been stolen from them by a prominent broker at the Galbreath Company, a national real estate company that helped refurbish the Trump International Hotel and Tower on Columbus Circle.
Three years later, the project is dead. But P&G’s lawsuit accusing Scott Coopchik, a Galbreath executive managing director, of stealing its confidential business plan and destroying a chance to develop the proposed resort is very much alive. Indeed, documents filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan provide a fascinating account of how the firm’s fledgling deal with the Chemechuevi tribe went sour after its plans were delivered to Mr. Trump.
Brian Gray and David Porter, P&G’s principals, said they had asked Galbreath to assist them in raising money for the project. Instead, according to their lawsuit, Mr. Coopchik stumbled across their plan and spirited it off to Trump Tower without their knowledge.
Mr. Trump himself is keeping an uncharacteristically low profile in this bitter tale. Charges against him in the lawsuit were dismissed last fall, and Mr. Trump said recently that he found P&G’s allegations against him baffling. “When I got sued, I didn’t even know what the lawsuit was about,” Mr. Trump told The Observer . “I said, ‘Where is this place?’ I just don’t know anything about it, and the judge obviously agreed.”
But three weeks after Mr. Coopchik sent P&G’s plans to Mr. Trump, Richard Fields, an associate of Mr. Trump’s, wrote the Chemechuevi tribe, saying the casino mogul would indeed be interested in extending his gambling empire to the reservation: “Please note that Mr. Trump is prepared to come and visit the reservation and address the Tribal Council whenever you should deem it appropriate.”
At the end of a five-day trial last March, a jury ruled that Mr. Fields’ letter had caused the tribe to sever its ties with P&G Enterprises and awarded the firm $200,000 in damages. Mr. Porter and Mr. Gray feel vindicated, but they are itching to drag Mr. Trump back into court. Their lawyer, Glenn Greenwald, said he is confident that the decision to dismiss him from the suit may be overturned on appeal.
Edward Boyle, an attorney for Mr. Coopchik and Galbreath (which was purchased in April by LaSalle Partners Inc.), scoffed at this chest-pounding. Sure, P&G had received the tribe’s blessings to conduct a study of the project’s environmental impact, a crucial first step in any major development. But Mr. Boyle argued that Mr. Porter and Mr. Gray were not even close to building such a resort in 1994. He said he is confident that Justice Ira Gammerman will grant his motion to overturn the jury verdict.
An Operatic Saga
Mr. Gray and Mr. Porter are an unlikely pair of casino developers. Mr. Gray, 50, is a former stage director for the Metropolitan Opera who sighs dramatically as he tells his woeful tale. Mr. Porter, 53, describes himself as a veteran real estate broker, but he lets his more colorful partner do most of the talking.
The two men said they were selling commercial real estate in California to Japanese investors when they were introduced to the leader of the Chemechuevi tribe in 1990. Mr. Gray and Mr. Porter weren’t particularly interested in the tribe’s proposal for a modest hotel and water park amid the tumbleweeds and Joshua trees on the reservation. But everything changed when the chairwoman suggested a casino.
“I said, ‘Lady, if you added a casino to this, everything jumps up 500 percent,'” Mr. Gray recalled.
Mr. Gray and Mr. Porter had never built a hotel-much less a casino. But they weren’t going to let that stop them. On April 24, 1993, after months of preparation, the two men presented their ambitious plan to the tribal council. Mr. Gray said they received a standing ovation.
Nathan Levi Esquerra, the tribe’s current chairman, did not return The Observer ‘s telephone calls about the lawsuit. However, Candice Chandler, a tribal council member, confirmed Mr. Gray’s account when she testified at the trial in March.
The tribe gave P&G Enterprises approval to conduct a study of the project’s environmental impact. Soon after, Mr. Gray and Mr. Porter were in New York, trying to line up nearly $10 million needed for the study and other preliminary work.
They decided to rely on Robert Saar, a real estate broker with Wall Street connections, at a little-known company. In February 1994, however, Mr. Saar was hired by Galbreath, a development P&G thought would only increase its chances of getting funds for the project. Mr. Porter said he told Mr. Saar that P&G would talk to almost any prospective investors, casino companies or hotel operators, with one exception: Mr. Trump.
Soon after Mr. Saar went to Galbreath, however, Mr. Gray and Mr. Porter said they were shocked to learn from their tribal contacts that Mr. Fields, Mr. Trump’s aide, had written the Chemechuevis about a competing casino project. Although Mr. Fields wasn’t an official Trump Organization employee, he has surfaced in Connecticut and Massachusetts, claiming to represent the casino owner on prospective gambling projects. What’s more, Mr. Fields has been a publicist for Marla Maples, Mr. Trump’s estranged wife.
Mr. Fields referred in his letter to a family-oriented casino resort that he wanted to discuss further with the tribe, adding: “I have reviewed your situation with Mr. Trump and his development team, and I believe, that for the most part, we are in total accord as to the direction the overall development program should take.”
Mr. Porter said in a recent interview that Mr. Saar told him Mr. Coopchik had removed the plan from his desk, sent it to the Trump Organization and refused his request to return the document. At the time, Mr. Coopchik, a smooth-talking ringer for Pat Riley, former coach of the New York Knicks, was working closely with Mr. Trump on the Trump International Hotel and Tower, a project Galbreath developed with the Trump Organization.
(Mr. Boyle, who represents both Mr. Saar and Mr. Coopchik, disputed Mr. Porter’s account. He noted Mr. Saar and Mr. Coopchik testified at the trial that P&G asked Galbreath to enlist Mr. Trump. Mr. Porter and Mr. Gray insist this is untrue.)
If that weren’t bad enough, Mr. Coopchik hadn’t required the Trump Organization to sign an agreement that P&G said it required promising neither to disclose the firm’s confidential business plans nor to circumvent the company by attempting to develop the project itself. (Mr. Saar testified that he asked Mr. Coopchik to obtain a confidentiality and noncircumvention agreement. Mr. Coopchik insisted at trial he was never asked to do so.)
One thing is certain: Mr. Fields’ letter had an impact. The tribe informed P&G that it had revoked P&G’s authorization to conduct the environmental impact study. “We were all ready [for Mr. Trump] to fly out there and meet with the tribal council,” Ms. Chandler of the tribe testified. “To have somebody of that notoriety come to our place, which is out in the middle of nowhere, it is really overwhelming.”
In a recent interview, Mr. Greenwald, P&G’s lawyer, accused Mr. Trump of abandoning the project because P&G’s insistent complaints made it too hot to handle.
Despite Mr. Trump’s actions, Mr. Gray and Mr. Porter were undaunted. Once the tribe stopped talking to them, they lament, their talks with potential business partners, such as Foxwoods Management Company, quickly fell apart. (The Mashantucket Pequots did not respond to an interview request.)
So they sued Galbreath and Messrs. Trump, Coopchik, and Saar. On Sept. 26, 1996, Justice Gammerman dismissed P&G’s charges against Mr. Trump. But he allowed their case against the remaining defendants go to trial.
Galbreath offered a novel defense to the jury: Mr. Coopchik didn’t doom P&G’s deal when he sent its plan to Mr. Trump because the casino baron had decided only weeks before not to proceed with a similar plan on the reservation.
Who should appear to bolster this defense but Mr. Fields. He testified he had been approached in 1993 by two Indians with a similar proposal. According to Mr. Fields, the Indians flew to New York and gave him two-hour presentation.
“I discussed it with Mr. Trump about a week later,” Mr. Fields testified. “He showed a preliminary interest. And I said that based upon that, if he wished, I’d go out and look at the project.”
Mr. Fields said he did just that. But, he said, he soon concluded that a large resort wouldn’t work on the reservation. Mr. Trump agreed, he added.
Under cross-examination, however, Mr. Fields conceded that one of the Indians who approached him happened to be his prospective father-in-law. What’s more, he said the meeting in New York happened five days before he married the man’s daughter here. “He didn’t attend the wedding,” he said.
In addition, Mr. Fields had difficulty explaining why he wrote the Chemechuevis on April 15, 1994-after Mr. Trump supposedly passed on the project-saying the casino owner was eager to meet with the tribe about a prospective casino resort. (He insisted he was talking about a much smaller resort that Mr. Trump was only marginally interested in.)
If Mr. Fields did visit the reservation before April 1994, he kept it very quiet. Ms. Chandler, a tribal council member, testified she was unaware of his presence. She said the first the 450 voting members of the tribe heard of Mr. Trump’s interest was in April, when Mr. Fields wrote his jubilant letter. Moreover, she said the tribe’s gaming committee thought his plan “was the same concept that P&G has proposed to the tribe.”
“Mr. Trump and the Trump Organization took those proposals, and they said to the tribe, ‘I am Donald Trump,'” Mr. Greenwald, P&G’s lawyer, told the jury in his closing arguments. “‘You’ve heard of me. I will develop the plaintiffs’ proposal instead. Get rid of [Messrs.] Porter and Gray. Who is that? You would rather have me do it.’ And that’s what the tribe did.”
Now, Mr. Porter and Mr. Gray want to even the score with Mr. Trump.