Working in Atlantic City in the early 1990s was a reporter’s dream. The casinos provided a non-stop parade of newsmakers and headliners that, in a pre-internet, era were readily willing to talk to the only local television station in the market.
It was a town of colorful characters. The collection included old timers with tales of the city’s “Boardwalk Empire” days as well as modern mobsters based in Atlantic City running their interests back in Philadelphia. Then there were those in the casino industry itself that at the time was still enjoying, along with Las Vegas and a handful of others spots, a basic monopoly on gambling in the country.
This trip into my past has ties to the present and the current Russian investigation going on in Washington.
There were always big names in town, like former talk show host Merv Griffin, who owned Resorts Casino and was a loyal viewer, always available for an interview. Then there was Frank Sinatra, who was still playing the Sands several times a year. Sinatra never talked to the media.
The biggest name in Atlantic City at the time, though, was New York developer Donald J. Trump. And "big" was true both figuratively and literally, since the name TRUMP was spelled out in giant bold red letters across all of his properties. (Click next page to see the Russian business card that prompted this blog)
I arrived in Atlantic City in June of 1990 as an anchor at the NBC affiliate WMGM-TV just months after Trump’s ground jewel, the Taj Mahal, opened to gamblers. The Taj was the latest of his Atlantic City ventures, joining casinos Trump Plaza and Trump Castle and a third hotel-only property, the Trump Regency.
I covered some memorable stories at the Trump properties over the years, hosting a television special with Tony Bennett from the Castle, covering Holyfield-Foreman and other title fights from the Plaza, and occasionally talking with Trump himself, who didn’t much like doing local interviews.
The Russia-Trump connection
The story begins with a business card I recently came across from one of the stories I covered at Trump Castle (see below). I held onto the card all of these years because it was unique: printed in English on one side, Russian on the other. It was the card of Yuri Zagainov, the Chief of Protocol to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who I interviewed following a meeting with Trump casino executives at the Castle.
It was the fall of 1992 (as best my memory serves), just a year after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and Zagainov was part of a group from Russia meeting with Trump casino executives. I don’t remember exactly why the Russians were meeting with the Trump officials that day (Trump was not part of the group), and to be clear, we were there at the invitation of the Trump public relations team or we would not have been allowed up to the Castle president’s office to do our interview.
Why I remembered this, in addition to the business card, was because of a story I’ve told often over the years about the group emerging from the office of Trump Castle President Roger Wagner. In his lobby was a portrait of Trump that the Russians were being shown, and I made the smart-aleck comment that there is normally a kneeler and candles in front of it (which brought glaring stares from the Trump folks).
That year, 1992, was a rough year for Atlantic City and the Trump casinos. The billion dollar Taj was the city’s 12th casino, but its opening and huge numbers came at the expense of the other eleven properties--including Trump’s Plaza and Castle.
Despite its immediate ascension to the role of market leader in monthly revenue, the Taj Mahal was not making enough money to cover the costs associated with the junk bonds used to finance its construction. That, coupled with the drop in revenue at the Plaza and Castle, saw all three properties go through bankruptcy reorganization by the fall of 1992.
At one point at the start of the economic downturn, when Trump was in danger of missing an interest payment due on the bonds against the Castle, he got a little creative help from his father, the developer Fred Trump.
The elder Trump essentially arranged to take out $3.5 million in $5,000 chips from the Castle but didn’t play or immediately redeem them. The end result was a banner weekend for the Castle and the interest payment was made. The move was later uncovered and resulted in a $30,000 fine against the Castle by the Division of Gaming Enforcement.
The elder Trump later filed the proper paperwork so he could loan his son money through proper channels in the future. The bankruptcies saw Trump lose more and more of his ownership stake in the properties.
Twenty-five years, later there are no more traces of Trump in Atlantic City; the Castle is now a Golden Nugget, while the Plaza sits empty and the Regency was torn down. The once-grand Taj Mahal closed last year and was recently sold at auction to Hard Rock International to reopen as a Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
So did anything actually result from that meeting with the Russians that fall afternoon a quarter century ago? I have no idea but it will be interesting to see in the coming months just how far back and how deep into Trump’s business the investigations in Washington will go and if therein lies an answer.