SAN DIEGO – Donald Trump’s lawyers, true to the Republican’s bare-knuckles style, are arguing in a San Diego courtroom that a lawsuit claiming his defunct university was a fraud can’t go forward if one of four lead plaintiffs is allowed to back out.
Tarla Makaeff is the “poster child” for the case, Trump’s lawyers have said, and letting her drop out would be unfair since they’ve built their defense based on her statements.
The former students’ lawsuit is one of three cases calling the school a fraud. As the San Diego suit nears trial, the school has become more of a focus on the campaign trail as Republican rivals and critics repeat the students’ allegations. Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, said last week that Trump’s promises are “as worthless as a degree from Trump University.”
Trump and the university face two class-action lawsuits in San Diego by former students, as well as a fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat. Trump University is accused in all three lawsuits of misleading students into paying as much as $35,000 for real estate seminars.
Schneiderman alleged Trump swindled students out of $40 million, saying that the purported experts “handpicked” by Trump weren’t selected by him. Some didn’t have any background in the industry or had recently sought bankruptcy because of their real estate investing failures, said Schneiderman, who accused Trump of running an unlicensed educational institution.
Makaeff, one of four named plaintiffs in the class-action case headed for trial, sued Trump University in 2010. Last month, she asked to be dismissed from the lawsuit, saying that she “has been put through the wringer” and that the thought of being subjected to more “mistreatment” from Trump’s lawyers at trial was unbearable.
In their response, Trump’s lawyers said Makaeff was a critical witness around whom they constructed their defense. If she were allowed out and couldn’t be called to testify, the whole lawsuit should be dismissed, they said. Makaeff’s failure in the real estate business wasn’t caused by Trump University, which she rated as excellent while taking the seminars, but by her own lack of perseverance, they said.
Trump University’s initial response to Makaeff’s lawsuit was to accuse her of “extortion” and countersue her for allegedly making false statements. The defamation claims were thrown out in 2014 and Makaeff was awarded $800,000 in fees.
A final pretrial hearing is scheduled for May 6. A trial date hasn’t been set. A separate class-action lawsuit filed in 2013, in which Trump and the university are accused of racketeering, isn’t as close to trial.
Last month, Trump accused U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the judge in charge of the two class-action lawsuits in San Diego, of being biased against him because of his comments about illegal immigrants and Mexico.
“I think it has to do with perhaps the fact that I’m very, very strong on the border,” Trump said on Fox News. “Now, he is Hispanic, I believe. He is a very hostile judge to me.”
Trump has pledged to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico and has called undocumented Mexican immigrants “rapists.”
Trump also defended the school in the interview.
“I handpicked top people, and the people I think did a good job and they ran a good school,” Trump said. He said 98 percent of students “approved the courses, they thought they were terrific.”
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