Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld
Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld (Melanie Bell)

A Boston restaurateur suing Donald Trump over an unfinished Fort Lauderdale beachfront tower testified Tuesday, often arguing bitterly.

John Taglieri, owner of the popular Giacomo’s Ristorante in Boston’s historic North End, recounted to jurors the troubled history of his involvement in the Trump International Hotel & Tower. He is one of two businessmen seeking to recoup construction fund deposits from a project that halted in 2009.

Taglieri professed to having been a fan of the New York celebrity entrepreneur. He had read Trump’s autobiography and admired his brand. When a friend told Taglieri about the tower project, the two traveled to Fort Lauderdale to visit the real estate sales office.

Taglieri said he signed a reservation contract in December 2005, committing him to put 20 percent down on a $730,000 unit.

Relying on information he gleaned from promotional materials and letters from the Trump Organization and affiliates, Taglieri expected to be able to entertain friends in luxury. When he wasn’t using the unit, Taglieri expected to earn a share of hotel operations by renting his unit through the hotel program.

“Was it your understanding that Trump was the developer?” asked plaintiffs attorney Elizabeth Lee of Beck & Lee in Miami.

“He is,” Taglieri said.

He testified he realized by 2008 that the project was in trouble and filed a lawsuit. He said he was upset when he found out Trump was pulling out of the project and considered picketing the project. Explaining his feelings toward Trump at the time, he mimicked Trump.

“You bought it. I put my name on it. Now I’m taking it off. You know what? It’s too bad,” Taglieri said. “He got his money. So what do I do?”

Taglieri was referring to the $1 million licensing fee the developer, SB Hotel Associates LLC, paid to get the Trump brand and management of the property.

Tiffany Key Chain

Lee presented a sales brochure and various follow-up letters sent on Trump company letterhead, often with Trump’s signature. Time after time, she asked if the documents said Trump was not the developer or if they said Trump was only the licensor.

Taglieri denied ever seeing such statements.

The lawsuit claimed fraud by misrepresentation. Taglieri and another contract holder, Michael Goodson, claimed they relied on materials that appeared to present Trump as the developer when in fact he was not.

At one point, Lee handed Taglieri a sterling silver key chain made by Tiffany & Co. and received in the mail. His condo unit number, 1430, was stamped on one side.

“This is ridiculous,” Taglieri said of the key chain as he handled it. He recalled taking it out of a drawer occasionally to polish it, waiting for the day the key would arrive and he could open the door. “This is just more enticement.”

In May 2009, Taglieri received a letter from SB Hotels explaining the building shell was complete and had received a certificate of occupancy from the city. It explained he could close on the unit, but he might not ever be able to occupy it.

On cross-examination, Robert Borrello of Russomanno & Borrello mined into the contract documents, asking Taglieri about his deposition responses. Going line by line in the fine print, Borrello noted where the documents stated SB Hotel was the developer and SB Hotel had no experience developing real estate.

The documents also stated Trump was the licensor and his company’s role was limited to an intention to be the “initial manager.”

In his Boston accent, the contentious restaurateur said: “You know what? This is legal language. But with all I got, I wouldn’t think there was any other intent but for Trump to open this up.”

Crash Consequences

Borrello listed several other South Florida properties Taglieri bought—including a unit in the Trump International Beach Resort in Sunny Isles Beach—and asserted that because of the housing crash, most declined in value below the purchase price.

Taglieri disagreed, claiming he hadn’t lost money.

An element of the defense has been that the investors would have been worse off had they closed on the units because they were overpriced after the 2008 crash.

Borrello repeatedly picked at Taglieri for not reading the contracts or having a lawyer review them. But Taglieri argued the promotional materials gave such a strong impression of Trump’s control of the project he never questioned its viability during the 15-day initial right of refusal period.

“I bought ten other properties,” Taglieri said. “I never brought a lawyer for any of them. This is the only one that ever backed up on me.”

When asked what he thought of SB Hotel’s relationship to Trump, Taglieri said he assumed it was under the umbrella of Trump’s companies.

Lee noted Taglieri controls Hanover Corp., which in turn controls his restaurant. Taglieri’s name is not on either company and that’s a common business organization practice.

The trial before Broward Circuit Judge Jeffrey Streitfeld is expected to continue through March 14. Trump has not attended but scheduled a news conference Wednesday about 30 miles away in Doral, where he owns the Trump National Doral Miami resort, which hosts the WGC Cadillac golf tournament starting Thursday.

Attorney Joe Altschul of Pembroke Pines is observing the trial in preparation for his own this summer. Altschul represents 81 plaintiffs, the lion’s share of depositors seeking $7.7 million plus interest.

The tower at 551 N. Fort Lauderdale Beach Blvd. was seized by the lender. Corus Construction Venture LLC sold it Dec. 19 to CFLB LLC for $120 million. It is currently undergoing a major renovation to open under the Hilton Conrad brand.