— -- Republican Presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz questioned Sunday whether Donald Trump’s business ties to a twice-convicted felon with prior mafia associations, described late last year in an ABC News investigation, could eventually undermine Trump’s chances in a general election contest.
“The important point is, George, in the general election, Hillary Clinton is going to shine a light on all of this,” said Cruz, speaking on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos". “And Republican primary voters deserve to know.”
Cruz raised the questions about Trump’s real estate dealings with Felix Sater, a Russian émigré who appeared in photos with Trump when Sater was an executive of a real estate company in business with the Trump Organization and later carried a Trump Organization business card with the title “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump.” Cruz questioned whether Trump’s tax returns would reveal anything more about the relationship.
“He's clearly hiding something,” Cruz said.
Trump said he has been unable to release his tax returns because he is being audited. He told CNN on Sunday, “until the audit is completed, obviously, I'm not giving my papers.”
“You can't tell anything from tax returns, because you take deductions, massive deductions and lots of other things,” he said. “And you can't tell very much from a tax return. You really can't tell anything as to that.”
Cruz referenced a Dec. 10 ABC News report that described Trump’s connection to Sater, which dates to the early 2000's when the Trump Organization worked on several occasions with a small development firm based in Trump Tower called the Bayrock Group, where Sater was an executive until 2007.
For years, Trump has sought to minimize his past business ties with Sater. When Trump was asked under oath about his dealings with the twice-convicted Russian émigré who served prison time and had documented mafia connections, he was at a loss. “If he were sitting in the room right now, I really wouldn't know what he looked like,” Trump testified in a video deposition for a civil lawsuit two years ago.
As Trump explained it during the deposition, the relationship began when Bayrock was a tenant in his Trump Tower office building, when “somebody from Bayrock, I'm not exactly sure, came to see -- either myself or one of my children” with a proposal for a development deal. “It could have been Felix Sater, it could have been -- I really don't know who it might have been,” Trump said, “but somebody from Bayrock."
Trump and Sater can be seen together in photographs attending a Denver business conference in 2005, and the two men posed on stage together at the 2007 launch party for the Trump SoHo Hotel and Condominium project. And in 2010, according to Trump’s lawyer, Sater was provided business cards by the Trump Organization identifying him as a “senior advisor" to Trump.
Sater has declined repeated requests for an interview, citing the advice of his attorney. But he has not been shy about posting items online touting his ties to Trump. On his website, he called the Trump SoHo his “most prized project.” For years he identified himself on his online resume at the LinkedIn website as having been a "senior advisor" to Trump in 2010-2011. In November, after ABC News asked Trump’s attorney about it, that portion of Sater’s online resume was deleted.
The “senior advisor” title stands in sharp contrast to how Trump and his aides have repeatedly described the nature of their connection with Sater, including in response to questions from ABC News.
Alan Garten, Trump’s General Counsel, initially told ABC News that Trump “had no real direct relationship with Felix Sater” and that Sater was not an advisor to Donald Trump “in my mind, and not in anyone at the Trump Organization's mind.”
A few days later, Garten confirmed the authenticity of Sater’s Trump business card with the “senior advisor” title which included a Trump Organization email address and phone number. But the lawyer said the title was not reflective of Sater’s actual role. It was common practice in the real estate industry, he said, to provide business cards and bestow titles “in order for brokers to be able to make initial introductions.”
Garten said Trump had minimal interaction with Sater on the various joint ventures with Bayrock, and so had no reason to probe deeply into his background.
“To be clear,” Garten told ABC News, “Mr. Sater's involvement in the projects, the projects that went forward, SoHo and Fort Lauderdale, may have existed in the beginning, but long term there was very little involvement.”
Garten said Sater was “never employed by or on the payroll of the Trump organization” and that “no deals ever came from those activities” in 2010. But Garten declined to respond to emails and phone messages with further questions, including whether Sater was provided office space or compensated by the Trump organization in any other way. Images of Sater’s business card were wiped from the internet shortly after ABC News asked Garten about it.