PALM BEACH, Fla. — Donald Trump says he received a $17 million insurance payment in 2005 for hurricane damage to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach. But The Associated Press has found little evidence of such large-scale damage.
Two years after a series of storms, the real estate tycoon said he didn’t know how much had been spent on repairs, but acknowledged he pocketed some of the money. He transferred funds into his personal accounts, saying that under the terms of his policy “you didn’t have to reinvest it.”
“Landscaping, roofing, walls, painting, leaks, artwork in the—you know, the great tapestries, tiles, Spanish tiles, the beach, the erosion,” he said of the storm damage. “It’s still not what it was.”
Trump’s description of extensive damage does not match the versions of Mar-a-Lago members and even Trump loyalists. In an interview about Mar-a-Lago’s history, Trump’s longtime former butler, Anthony Senecal, recalled no catastrophic damage. He said Hurricane Wilma, the last of a string of storms which barrelled through in 2004 and 2005, flattened trees behind the estate, but the house itself only lost some roof tiles.
“That house has never been seriously damaged,” said Senecal, discussing Mar-a-Lago’s luck with hurricanes. “I was there for all of them.”
Just over two weeks after Wilma, Trump hosted 370 guests at Mar-a-Lago for the wedding of his son Donald Jr. Wedding photographs by Getty Images showed the house, pools, cabanas and landscaping seemingly in good repair.
Valuations for Mar-a-Lago are subjective, but Forbes estimated the 110,000-square-foot property’s value at $150 million in its most recent appraisal of Trump’s net worth. Tim Frank, Palm Beach’s planning administrator at the time of the hurricanes, said $17 million in work would have required “dozens, maybe scores of workers.”
Palm Beach building department records showed no permits for construction on that scale after the storms. The only permits that appeared hurricane-related were $3,000 in repairs to storm-damaged outdoor lighting and the vacuuming of sand from the property’s beachfront pool. Likewise, records of the city’s Landmarks and Preservation Commission reflected no repair work conducted following the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons.
The $17 million Mar-a-Lago insurance payment surfaced during a 2007 deposition in Trump’s unsuccessful libel lawsuit against journalist Tim O’Brien, who Trump accused of underestimating his wealth. As part of the case, O’Brien’s attorneys were permitted to review Trump’s financial records, including some from the Mar-a-Lago Club. They asked Trump to quantify the damage and explain why he had pocketed money instead of spending it on repairs.
Trump said he could not remember which hurricane had damaged Mar-a-Lago or when it hit.
“We continue to spend the money because we continue to suffer the ravages of that hurricane,” Trump said.
The insurance adjustor who assessed the insurance claim, Hank Stein of VeriClaim Inc., said there had been damage to Trump’s golf course in West Palm Beach and damage to Mar-a-Lago’s roof and landscaping. Stein called his review “a thorough investigation” but could not remember details. Trump declined to provide the AP with records about the insurance claim or answer specific questions about damage at Mar-a-Lago.
Stein, who has since left VeriClaim for another firm, said he remembered water damage from rain after windows to an observation deck atop the mansion blew open. “I wish I could give you some more information on the breakdown,” he said.
Under local rules, major repairs would have required Trump to request a permit and pay permit fees. It is possible someone could perform such work without permits, avoiding as much as $450,000 in fees, but that would have likely been illegal.
The city’s former planning administrator said getting away with such extensive unpermitted work would have been unlikely. Frank cited both his own agency’s vigilance and wealthy Palm Beach residents’ habit of calling out each other’s code violations. Once, Trump’s neighbours hired lawyers to report suspicions that Trump improperly let guests sleep in poolside cabanas when they were at the club for a wedding.
“If there were $17 million dollars of damage, we sure as hell would have known about that,” said Frank. “I would have known if there was anything in the magnitude of $100,000.”
The Republican mayor of Palm Beach at the time—and Mar-a-Lago member—Jack McDonald, agreed: “I am unable to comprehend $17 million in reimbursable damage.”
Jane Day, the city’s former historical preservation consultant, also was mystified. “This is the first I’m hearing of it.”
Frank said the commission would have granted immediate approval to simple repairs, but Trump or his contractors would still have needed to file for permits.
“If they changed the doorknobs I was supposed to review it,” Frank said.