Bizarre legal brawl intensifies at Trump hotel in Panama

Feb 27, 2018
  • By Joshua Partlow, David A. Farenthold
  • The Washington Post
Arnulfo Franco/AP
A marquee of the main entrance to the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower is seen in Panama City, Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. One of President Donald Trump's family businesses is battling an effort to physically evict its team of executives from a luxury hotel in Panama where they manage operations, and police have been called to keep the peace, The Associated Press has learned. Witnesses told the AP they saw Trump's executives carrying files to a room for shredding.

Last Thursday afternoon, the majority owner of the Trump International Hotel here in Panama arrived unexpectedly in the building's swank Sky Lobby, with an entourage. 

He wanted to fire the Trump Organization, which has managed the hotel since it opened in 2011. 

But the Trump Organization has refused to leave. 

Since that first confrontation, police have been called multiple times to referee disputes between owner Orestes Fintiklis — who blames Trump's poor management and damaged brand for the hotel's declining revenue — and the Trump Organization, which says it still has a valid contract to manage the place. 

Offices have been barricaded. Several yelling matches have broken out. The power was briefly turned off, in a dispute over the building's electronic equipment. At one point, Fintiklis — denied a chance to fire the hotel staff, or even check into a room — played a tune on the hotel's lobby piano as an apparent show of defiance. 

On Monday, Panama's federal prosecutors said they had opened an investigation into the Trump Organization, after Fintiklis complained that he had been unlawfully blocked from his own property. 

With that, this bizarre standoff had turned a theoretical concern about the Trump administration — that, someday, the president's private business might be investigated by a foreign government — into a reality. 

"The fear has always been that there would be an international incident involving the finances of the president, and the president would have his loyalties questioned," said Jordan Libowitz, of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. 

"What kind of pressure would he be willing to place on them?" he asked, referring to foreign authorities. 

On Monday, the White House press office did not respond to questions sent about the standoff at Trump Panama. The U.S. Embassy in Panama City and the Panamanian Foreign Ministry both declined to comment, saying they were not involved. 

Fintiklis also declined to comment. 

President Donald Trump says he has handed over day-to-day control of his companies to his sons Eric and Donald Jr. But the president still owns his businesses and can withdraw money from them at any time, documents show. 

On Monday, the Trump Organization issued a statement about the standoff in Panama, accusing Fintiklis and his allies of "mob style" tactics, and of ignoring ongoing court actions over the future of the property. 

"It now appears as though Mr. Fintiklis has either lost patience with the pace of the proceedings which he commenced or simply lacks the financial backing he once claimed he had," the Trump Organization's statement said. The company's contract to manage the hotel extends to 2031. "Mr. Fintiklis recently decided to take matters into his own hands and try and physically — and forcibly — remove Trump from the Hotel as manager." 

As of Monday afternoon, the Trump Organization was still managing the hotel — which shares space with residential condominiums in a 70-story tower that resembles a billowing sail. 

But there were obvious signs of trouble: On the building's service floor, which houses IT infrastructure, telecommunications equipment and surveillance monitors, a Trump guard blocked the door, and other guards circulated behind him. 

Since his election in November 2016, President Trump's polarizing politics appear to have taken a toll on a number of his businesses — hurting those in liberal cities and some foreign countries. In two such places — Toronto and Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood — last year the owners of Trump-branded hotels cut ties with the Trump Organization, found new managers and dropped the Trump name. 

But those endings were amicable. 

The dispute in Panama is not. 

The fight over this building began last year, when Fintiklis - a Cypriot businessman now based in Miami — bought 202 of the hotel's 369 units. The hotel is structured as a "hotel condominium," in which the rooms were sold individually, and the condo owners collectively contract with Trump to run the hotel. 

In his most recent personal financial disclosure, Trump said his company had received $810,000 in management fees over the preceding 15 1/2 months. 

The Trump Organization said that, when he bought the units, Fintiklis had explicitly agreed not to try to fire them as the hotel's managers. 

But late last year, he did. 

This July 4, 2011, file photo, shows the Trump International Hotel Panama , third building from left, in Panama City. Panama's government is formally investigating a complaint that executives for President Donald Trump's family hotel business are refusing to physically leave the 70-story luxury Trump hotel there amid a management dispute. Photo: Arnulfo Franco/AP

Fintiklis took over the hotel condo owners association and moved to terminate the Trump Organization's contract. His argument — made in letters to tenants — has been that the hotel's finances were so bad that the Trump Organization has effectively broken its promise to manage the hotel well. 

"It should be clear to all of us," Fintiklis wrote a few weeks ago, "that our investment has no future" with Trump's brand on it. Some hotel-unit owners have reported that their properties are occupied less than 30 percent of the time. 

Until last week, the dispute seemed likely to play out at the glacial speed of legal proceedings. There was a lawsuit in New York, and an arbitration case. 

But then, Fintiklis made his move. 

"Mr. Fintiklis arrived in Panama with a rogue private security team and others and launched a coordinated attack to physically take over the management of the Hotel," the company said in a statement, recounting last Thursday's attempted takeover. 

After the arguments, Fintiklis moved to the hotel's lobby piano and played a loud tune, in an apparent show of defiance, according to a video seen by The Washington Post. 

Fintiklis does not appear to have obtained any court's permission to take over the hotel. 

Two people familiar with Fintiklis's account said that, after his arrival, hotel employees barricaded office doors with furniture, and added that documents were shredded. The two individuals said Trump employees — including an executive who flew down from New York City — had also blocked access to a control room that houses servers and surveillance-camera monitors. 

This room, they said, is shared by the hotel operation and the residential parts of the same building, which is no longer operated by the Trump Organization. The two spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing legal proceedings. 

In response, building administrators — who do not work for Trump — cut power for a time Friday to the portion of the building that houses the surveillance room. Throughout the day there were problems with cable TV and internet service. 

On Monday afternoon, a lawyer for Fintiklis attempted to serve citations to nine hotel employees summoning them to the Labor Ministry, but hotel security guards denied him access, according to owners in the building with knowledge of the dispute. 

Fintiklis' lawyer went to Panamanian prosecutors Friday, complaining that Trump staffers had used "intimidation and threats" to block him from his own building. That complaint was what triggered the prosecutors' promise to investigate. 

In a letter to employees of the hotel, sent Sunday afternoon, Fintiklis sought to turn them to his side — saying they had been misled and betrayed by a few officials who were serving Trump, rather than the hotel's owners. 

"Now it must be clear to all of you that the Trump Organization, in an effort to win some financial and strategic gains over me and the other owners, has lied to you and put your work at the hotel in grave risk," he wrote. "You have been victims of a horrible lie."