Investors and customers of the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City carried deep ties to organized crime and drug trafficking, according to an NBC News and Reuters joint investigation.
A Brazilian real estate salesman who partnered with the Trumps to attract condo buyers for the tower told NBC that the Trumps and others connected to the project were unaware that he was attracting shady investors to the project, but that they never asked any questions.
“I had some customers with questionable backgrounds,” said Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, who spoke to NBC on camera but under disguise from an undisclosed European city.
“Nobody ever asked me. Banks never asked. Developer didn’t ask and (the) Trump Organization didn’t ask. Nobody ask, ‘Who are the customers, where did the money come from?’ No, nobody ask.”
The Reuters and NBC News investigation said it found no indication that the Trump family or the Trump Organization engaged in any illegal activity or know of the backgrounds of people who did have links to organized crime.
In a statement in response to the investigation, the Trump Organization distanced itself from the Panama project.
“The Trump Organization was not the owner, developer or seller of the Trump Ocean Club Panama project,” the statement said. “Because of its limited role, the company was not responsible for the financing of the project and had no involvement in the sale of units or the retention of any real estate brokers.”
Still, legal experts contacted by Reuters for the story said Trump should have asked those questions.
Because Panama is “perceived to be highly corrupt,” said Arthur Middlemiss, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan and a former head of JPMorgan’s global anti-corruption program, those who do business there should perform due diligence on others involved in their ventures.
If they fail to do so, he told Reuters, they risk being liable under U.S. law of being found having turned a blind eye to wrongdoing.
The Trump Organization does not own the hotel, but rather licenses the Trump name to the project in order to boost sales.
Ventura, according to the report, had a "challenge" with Ivanka Trump over whether he could sell 100 of the units in the building. If he succeeded, she would name him the lead sales rep for the project.
“The agreement was, I had a week to sell 100 units,” Ventura said. “I said, ‘I’m going to do better, I’m going to sell without telling (the buyers) the price.'”
Ventura ended up selling the units, and eventually ended up appearing alongside Trump in a video promoting the project. He was also photographed with President Trump himself.
Several of those units were sold to David Murcia Guzmán, the founder of a large Colombian marketing company. Guzmán now sits in a U.S. jail cell, awaiting extradition to Colombia after being convicted of laundering money for drug cartels.
In fact, some of the units seemed to be sold several times. Once the project was completed, complaints began arising that Ventura double- or triple-sold units and that several customers "ran into each other."
“When the building was completed and people arrived to seek out their apartments, they ran into each other — two, three people who were fighting for the same apartment," said a former lawyer for Ventura.
Now, Ventura is a fugitive from justice in Panama, where he told Reuters an arrest warrant is still waiting for him. He is under a federal investigation for international money laundering, and admitted to laundering money for corrupt Panamanian politicians. In 2009, he was arrested on fraud charges related to the project.
“Of course, right now, I can be considered by the justice system to be fugitive. But there are two sides to everything," he told Reuters.