Trump still owes money to contractors who built Taj Mahal casino
Friday 24th January 2020
Steve Jenkins says he does not plan to show up at President Donald Trump's rally next week in Wildwood.
But if he made the trek from his home in West Chester, Pennsylvania, Jenkins would bring a bill -- for the tens of thousands of dollars he says Trump still owes him.
Of all the troubling accusations that have followed Trump into the White House, there is little talk these days of the trail of unpaid bills he left behind from his days as an Atlantic City casino mogul.
Trump obviously faces far more formidable problems now, including his impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. So it's highly unlikely that he will mention his unpaid bills from Atlantic City when he takes the stage Tuesday night at the Wildwoods Convention Center.
But for the carpenters, electricians, plumbers, window installers and other contractors who built Trump's Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City three decades ago, the wounds from not being paid still fester.
"It's terrible," said Jenkins, who runs Triad Building Specialties. "I can't stand Trump. I think he's nothing but a snake oil salesman."
Jenkins was just 19 when Triad Building Specialties, started by his father in the mid-1970s, got the $300,000 contract to provide guardrails, doors, stalls and paper dispensers for the nearly 300 public bathrooms at the Trump Taj Mahal casino overlooking the Atlantic City beachfront.
It was April 1990. Trump was viewed across the world as a master businessman. His book "Trump: The Art of the Deal," published three years earlier, was still on the bestseller lists.
In Atlantic City, Trump bragged that the Taj Mahal -- which he claimed had a price tag of $1.2 billion -- was the "eighth wonder of the world." Not only was it considered the largest casino anywhere, it was adorned with crystal chandeliers from Austria, hand-sewn carpets from Britain, Carrara marble from Italy and 70 onion domes that towered over the Atlantic City boardwalk.
But the Taj, as it came to be called, was built on financial sand.
What Trump didn't say was that he financed the Taj with junk bonds. And what he did not tell the scores of contractors who worked on the overly lavish casino was that he could not pay their bills.
Triad Building Specialties ended up taking out a $40,000 loan just to pay its suppliers. And then the firm needed another decade just to pay off the loan. In the end, Triad received only 40 cents on the dollar from Trump for its work on the Taj, said Jenkins, now 49 and the firm's co-owner.
"If it was just us, you could understand, but this has been a pattern over his entire career," Jenkins said. "He's owned so many failed or fraudulent companies over the years. It's staggering to me."
Trump, who once bragged that he was the "King of Debt," owed $70 million to 253 contractors who worked on the Taj and who, in turn, hired thousands of workers.
Some firms sculpted the cement on the Taj's domes and minarets. Others installed the casino's windows and chandeliers. Still others laid the pipes and concrete pavers.
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When contractors complained about delays in pay, Trump said he needed to complete audits to make sure they weren't overcharging. Years later, when he ran for president and was asked about his failure to pay, Trump suggested that he needed to carefully check the bills because he feared that some contractors were cheating him.
That kind of strategy in delaying payment on his bills was not new. In "Trump: The Art of the Deal," he wrote: "You have to be very rough and very tough with most contractors or they'll take the shirt right off your back."
In this case, Trump took the shirts off the backs of contractors -- and emptied their wallets.
Atlantic City Mayor Marty Small Sr. was only a teenager when the news emerged of Trump's failure to pay for the workers at the Taj Mahal. But even today, he said, the subject stirs anger in the city.
"It's still a talking point, anytime his name is brought up," Small said. "It's still a horror story for all of these people. He took advantage of people."
With Trump delaying payments, contractors reached into their pockets to pay their workers and suppliers. In desperation, some contractors eagerly accepted a new offer from Trump: If they would agree to less than they billed, he would pay the lower amounts immediately.
By 1991, when the Taj collapsed into bankruptcy, Trump offered those contractors only 33 cents in cash for each dollar he owed. He promised another 50 cents on the dollar later. But many contractors say it took years to get anything.
And they were the lucky ones.
An Atlantic City firm that supplied paving stones lost $1.2 million. An Ohio company that made the Taj Mahal's onion domes was shortchanged $2 million. A firm that brought in the Carrara marble from Italy went bankrupt.
Steven Perskie, a former Democratic assemblyman and state senator from Margate, had an appallingly close-up view of Trump's battles with contractors. In 1990, then-Gov. James Florio appointed Perskie to run the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
Perskie, who later became a state Superior Court judge, said "a number of local contractors and suppliers" simply gave up and went out of business. And when Trump gave up the last of his Atlantic City casino holdings in 2009, it ended any chance that contractors would get paid.
In 2016, when asked by The New York Times in the midst of Trump's presidential campaign for his opinion of the former casino mogul, Perskie thought back to those unpaid contractors and their lingering financial scars.
"When he left Atlantic City, it wasn't, 'Sorry to see you go,' " Perskie said. "It was, 'How fast can you get the hell out of here?' "
Since then, Perskie has refused to discuss Trump. When contacted by NorthJersey.com and the USA TODAY NETWORK New Jersey about the upcoming rally and the legacy of Trump's unpaid bills in Atlantic City, Perskie declined to comment, citing his concern that he would be targeted for ridicule by Trump supporters.
Others who knew of Trump's financial failings in Atlantic City are not so shy.
"You don't want to hear what I think of Donald Trump," said Marty Rosenberg of Egg Harbor.
Rosenberg's firm, Atlantic Plate and Glass, installed most of the glass and mirrors in the Taj Mahal. But when the casino opened, Trump still owed Rosenberg more than $1.5 million.
What Rosenberg, now 76 and retired, quickly noticed was that Trump had no intention of forking over the money. And with Trump saying he would pay only 33 cents on each dollar he owed, Rosenberg organized the unpaid contractors.
The group then pressured Trump to pay up. But in the end, most came up short.
Rosenberg had to take out bank loans to pay his bills. He says he also spent hours on the phone begging his suppliers to give him more time.
Eventually, he paid everyone. But he is still bitter about Trump. And while he says he is a political "independent," he nevertheless volunteered to speak in television ads supporting Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Today, Rosenberg says the way Trump handled his business affairs in Atlantic City "is similar to how he handles the United States." And with a touch of sarcasm, Rosenberg added: "If ethics and morality have nothing to do with business, then Donald Trump is a very good businessman."
Today, Rosenberg says he does not like to talk about Trump. Rosenberg is fed up. He follows the impeachment hearings. And he plans to follow the upcoming presidential campaign.
Yet he is still angry at how Trump shortchanged him. He is tempted to present Trump with a bill when the president visits Wildwood for a rally among supporters.
But Rosenberg can't be bothered.
"I don't have anything nice to say about him," Rosenberg said. "I try not to mention his name."
Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in New Jersey, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.