A lot of famous and important people have felt the sting of Donald Trump’s invective in recent months, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, British Prime Minister David Cameron and even the pope.
And then there’s Bob Guillo, of Manhasset, N.Y.
The 76-year-old Long Island retiree found himself singled out by Trump in a speech on May 27 because he had criticized Trump University, one of the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s most controversial business ventures.
Guillo paid nearly $35,000 to be part of Trump University’s “Gold Elite” program, taking money out of his individual retirement account to pay for it. It was a decision he would come to regret.
“At first it was embarrassing,” Guillo says in an interview with NPR. “Then I became very, very angry that the man that scammed me out of all that money had the audacity to run for president. And I’m still angry.”
Guillo’s involvement with the program began in 2009, when he accompanied his grown son, Alex, to a program that promised to teach people how to make money in real estate. The three-day event cost $1,495 to attend.
The session took place at a hotel on Manhattan’s East Side. Guillo remembers signs in the hotel lobby that read, “This Way to Success.” Inside the auditorium was a large cardboard cutout of Trump, and attendees had their picture taken alongside it.
The people running the session were more like motivational speakers than trained real estate professionals, and they were very persuasive, Guillo says.
“The first thing they said was, ‘Guys, Mr. Trump is a multibillionaire and he doesn’t need your money. He’s doing this to be benevolent and to allow people like you to become successful like he is,’ ” Guillo says.
Almost immediately, the speakers began pressuring people to sign up for more classes, and when someone balked at spending more money or asked for time to think about it, they turned up the heat, Guillo says.
“They try to embarrass you, saying, ‘Why do you have to talk to your wife? Why do you have to talk to your husband? Can’t you make decisions by yourself? We’re offering you an opportunity of a lifetime here,’ ” he says.
In fact, Trump University sales people were actively encouraged to sell programs to attendees and were taught ways to overcome their resistance when possible, according to confidential documents released last week.
After signing up for the Gold Elite status, a kind of year-long program of mentoring sessions and educational seminars, Guillo says he realized pretty quickly that the information it provided was largely worthless. Attendees were told to use the real estate website Trulia.com to find properties, or to go to the website of the Internal Revenue Service, irs.gov, to learn about federal tax deductions, he says.
“I knew about those websites before I walked into Trump University. So the more and more I got involved in Trump University, the more and more I found out that I had truly been scammed,” he says.
It’s a picture that Jill Martin, vice president and assistant general counsel at the Trump Organization, disputes.
Far from being worthless, the Gold Elite program featured numerous valuable seminars on different aspects of the real estate industry, allowing attendees to choose what they wanted to focus on, Martin says. In fact, many people complained the classes were too detailed, she says.
But, Martin adds, “No education can guarantee success. Education can only give the students the tools they need to apply in the real world to be successful.”
Ultimately, when Guillo contacted Trump University officials to demand his money back, he was turned down. He subsequently filed a complaint with the office of the New York attorney general.
The office already had heard numerous complaints about the program, according to current Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, and was about to file civil fraud charges against it. Meanwhile, class-action suits had been filed against Trump University in California.
Guillo subsequently appeared in an anti-Trump TV commercial funded by a group with ties to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who was then running against Trump in the Republican primary.
Trump maintains that the legal challenges against the program are politically motivated. He also says the vast majority of attendees were satisfied with the program and filled out cards giving it highest marks. Among the critics he cited by name was Guillo.
“You have this guy, Bob Guillo,” Trump said during his May 27 speech. “He appeared in TV attack ads, even though he rated the programs a five — meaning excellent, the top mark, across the board.”
Guillo acknowledges that he gave the program high marks in comment cards submitted when it was nearly over, but says he and the other attendees were pressured to do so by instructors.
“They would say, ‘OK, if you don’t rate me a five, I’m not going to come back here, and I’ve got a wife and kids,’ and most of the people who were there said, ‘It doesn’t cost me anything,’ ” he says.
But Guillo says none of the attendees knew the cards would later be used by Trump as a defense against lawsuits.
Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, adds, “The Trump system was to have people fill out an evaluation form with the instructor standing right in front of them, and it was not an anonymous form.”
That exerted pressure on the attendees to give high marks, he says.
But Martin, the Trump Organization attorney, says those allegations are “not credible” and insists that instructors were not even in the room nearby when the cards were filled out.