A Trump Golf Course Said It Gave Millions To Charity. Here's What The Numbers Say | KUOW News and Information

A Trump Golf Course Said It Gave Millions To Charity. Here's What The Numbers Say

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 20, 2017 2:06 pm

Updated on Oct. 20 at 4:04 p.m. ET

Throughout his presidential campaign and since, President Trump has made bold assertions about his charitable giving. But as the Washington Post has thoroughly documented, those boasts of philanthropy don't always stand up to scrutiny.

Now NPR has taken a closer look at the charitable-giving claims made by a Trump property, the Trump National Golf Club, Los Angeles. We have found that the golf club's charitable giving has followed the same pattern — falling far short of what the organization claimed.

As recently as this summer, the club declared on its website: "We are proud to have provided $5 million to the following charitable causes since our opening." It listed nearly 200 recipients.

For weeks, NPR's Embedded podcast and conflicts-of-interest team combed through that list to verify the assertions. NPR cross-referenced the golf club's website with a document that the Trump campaign gave to The Associated Press in 2015, detailing charitable gifts from 2010 to 2015. NPR also called and emailed dozens of organizations to find out whether they have a record of a donation from Trump National Golf Club, the Trump Organization or VH Property Corp., the LLC that technically owns the golf course.

That reporting suggests the club's donations have fallen well short of $5 million and are much closer to approximately $800,000.

NPR has repeatedly contacted the Trump Organization and the golf club manager, sending questions via phone calls, emails, letters and a fax message. They have not responded.

However, the club did change its assertions. In early September, about a month into NPR's reporting, the Trump Organization took down the list of organizations from its website and removed the claim about having donated $5 million.

A version of that page still exists via the Internet Archive as well as archive.is. (Editor's note: At the time this story was published on Wednesday afternoon, a page still existed for philanthropy, with instructions for making a donation request. By Friday, that page redirected to the club's homepage.)

To be clear, NPR did confirm that the club, located outside Los Angeles in Rancho Palos Verdes, has made charitable donations. The discrepancies involve the amounts of gifts and numbers of recipients.

Through interviews and examinations of publicly available documents, here's what NPR has found:

  • Seventeen organizations listed on the Trump National website said that they could not find any record of a donation from the golf club.
  • Several organizations listed on the website are not charities at all. The list includes a city government, a state agency and a branch of the U.S. military.
  • Most organizations received small contributions from the golf club, including donations of $140. Most of the contributions to organizations on the list were not in the form of cash but in-kind donations, like a gift certificate for a round of golf or "Sunday brunch for two."
  • In the end, NPR was able to confirm only about $800,000 in donations, less than one-fifth of what was claimed.

Missing donations and discrepancies

As several organizations pointed out, the fact that 17 of them could not find a record of a donation does not necessarily mean they never received one. It could suggest that the donations were not significant enough to be remembered or written down, or it might be chalked up to a lack of precision in naming the recipients.

For example, the Trump Campaign document listed more than $21,000 in donations to the "UCLA Foundation" and the "UCLA Women's Golf Program." Brian Haas, a spokesman for the university, said UCLA searched multiple times for records of donations, but came up empty-handed.

"We are unaware of these particular donations," Haas wrote in an email. "If you can coax some additional information from the Trump Organization, perhaps that would help."

The Trump website also cited a donation to "Cystic Fibrosis" — as in the genetic disease, rather than a specific charity supporting research. The Trump Campaign document also has an entry for a $1,182.50 donation to "Child Abuse."

Several organizations listed are not charities at all, such as the City of Avalon, Calif., and the California Department of Veteran Affairs. Both said they could find no record of a donation from Trump or his golf club.

Then there's the entry for a $152.14 donation to the "U.S. Department of the Navy." (That amount indicates the donation was for a gift certificate for "Sunday brunch or two" at the golf club.) In an email, a Navy official told NPR, "We have no information about whether or how this specific gift was given to the Navy."

But a handful of organizations in the Rancho Palos Verdes area do report receiving "generous" cash contributions.

One example comes from John Williams. A former Kiwanis Club president, Williams now runs the Peninsula Symphony, a small orchestra that performs free concerts. He says Trump helped support the Kiwanis Club's Palos Verdes Marathon from 2005 to 2007, with three donations of $15,000 each, and has supported the symphony through in-kind donations.

"I would have to say he's been a very good community supporter," Williams said.

In-kind donations

NPR's other key finding was that overwhelmingly, charitable giving by Trump National involved gift certificates, such as the "Sunday brunch for two" or "twosome for golf" (worth approximately $600).

The Washington Post has documented that Trump properties around the country also prefer this type of donation. Some nonprofits welcome such gifts.

Judith Opdahl, the executive director of the Cancer Support Community Redondo Beach, did not offer specific dollar amounts but says the Trump Organization has been "very philanthropic" by providing discounted event space and in-kind donations for charity auctions.

Daniel Borochoff, of the charity watchdog CharityWatch, says many companies use in-kind donations as a way to promote their business and build goodwill.

"If the public or potential customers have good feelings towards the business, they're more likely to play golf there or shop there," Borochoff said.

But he is skeptical about the value of such philanthropy, noting that such donations help build the Trump brand and bring in new customers.

"It may not be altruism," Borochoff said. "It may just be marketing his business."

Borochoff says another reason companies offer in-kind donations is that such gifts rarely cost the company much money. They also frequently come with strings attached.

For example, a charity event held by Concordia University, Irvine auctioned a "twosome of Golf" at the Trump golf club. But the gift certificate was only valid from Mondays through Thursdays and expired within six months.

In most cases, experts say, cash donations are also much more valuable to a charity than in-kind donations. To turn a gift certificate into cash, a charity typically must hold an auction, which takes time and effort. And the bid usually comes in at less than the market value of the in-kind donation.

Jacob Harold, the president of GuideStar, which tracks nonprofits, says when companies claim an in-kind donation is worth the full sticker price, it can create a false impression.

"If you are saying, 'We gave $5 million away over the last few years,' and that's at market prices," says Harold, "that's actually somewhat misleading."

A controversial source for the $5 million estimate

So how does the total charitable giving of Trump's golf club stack up? NPR was able to verify only about $800,000 in charitable gifts, even treating in-kind donations at full market value.

Because the Trump Organization did not respond, NPR could not ask how the club reached the $5 million figure listed on its website.

It's possible the club was including a sometimes controversial federal tax break: conservation easements.

In January 2015, Trump made an agreement with the Palos Verdes Peninsula Land Conservancy to set aside the golf course's 11.5-acre driving range as environmentally valuable open space.

"The easement protects the land and prohibits harmful uses on the property such as dumping, landfill, and also has restrictions on waste and impermeable surfacing among many other items," said a press release from the land conservancy. Trump said the easement represented a significant gift, because the land was worth "much more than $25 million," and he could get a windfall if he built and sold houses on that property.

Though, as The Associated Press has reported, it's unclear whether Trump ever had concrete plans to build houses on the property. City officials also told NPR that Trump faced significant barriers to building because of the area's geological instability.

Conservation easements can help protect the environment and can also offer valuable tax breaks for companies, especially golf courses. They've also come under increased scrutiny from the Internal Revenue Service.

Trump's California golf course before and after the agreement looks the same. The driving range is still a driving range.

"The smell test isn't great in that case," Harold, of GuideStar, said. Claiming a charitable donation for preserving a driving range as open space "doesn't feel like a sacrifice."

It's unclear what, if any, deductions Trump or the Trump Organization claimed from the easement agreement. The land conservancy itself says it does not assign dollar values to the land. So that may be a question only Trump's tax returns can answer.

He has not released those.

If your organization has received a donation from Trump National Golf Club, Los Angeles, or if you believe your organization was wrongly included on the golf club's website, please let us know. You can reach Tom Dreisbach at tdreisbach@npr.org.

NPR's Sonari Glinton contributed to this report.

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