About seven years ago Robert Guillo, 76, and his son, Alexander, walked into a Manhattan hotel and followed signs that read, "This way to success. This way to Trump University."
They sat down in a room, he recalled recently, with several hundred others and listened to an instructor describe how investing in real estate had brought him from rags to riches. As he flashed his Rolex watch, he told attendees that Donald Trump had hand-picked him to teach others to become successful investors. During the seminar, Mr. Guillo said, he was repeatedly urged to pay for future three-day retreats that promised to offer an inside look at Mr. Trump’s techniques.
By the end of the day, he was sold. He put $34,995 on his American Express card to join the Trump Gold Elite program. And though he did attend some three-day seminars, he said, the instructors never helped him buy properties, as they had promised, but instead focused on selling more seminars.
Mr. Guillo thought about hiring a lawyer to recover his money, but "frankly you can’t hire an attorney in New York to sue Donald Trump for $35,000," he said. "Impossible."
But in 2013, New York’s attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, did sue Mr. Trump’s for-profit company, asserting it had intentionally misled over 5,000 students into paying up to $35,000 for seminars and mentorship programs. By that point, "Trump University" — or the "Trump Entrepreneur Initiative," as it was renamed following a court ruling that declared it an unlicensed educational institution — was defunct.
From 2005 to 2011, Trump University promised students that it would offer an inside look at Mr. Trump’s techniques on how to get rich in the real-estate business. But students like Mr. Guillo say that promise wasn’t fulfilled.
Mr. Trump could be called to testify in the California cases as early as this summer, but so far he has played down the litigation. "It’s a small deal. Very small," he said, according to the New York Daily News. He added that he planned to reopen the university when he won the New York case.
A spokeswoman for Donald Trump’s campaign did not reply to requests for comment.
‘It Really Wasn’t a University’
It’s hard to compare Mr. Trump’s "university" to any other for-profit education ventures. "It really wasn’t a university," said Kevin Kinser, an associate professor in the department of educational administration and policy studies at the University at Albany, part of the State University of New York. "These were just certificates and, because presumably they were backed by Trump, people thought they would have some value in the marketplace," he said.
Mr. Guillo, who spent most of his career working for law firms, said he knew there was a provision in the law that regulated companies that used the word "university" in their name. "Everything checked out," he said, leading him to think that Trump University, as it was known at the time, was "a bona fide university" regulated by the government.
In the lawsuit filed by Mr. Schneiderman, Trump University is described as a classic bait-and-switch, which attracted students with a free seminar that would act as a sales pitch for increasingly expensive seminars starting at $1,495 each. Several students, like Mr. Guillo, paid $35,000 for an elite mentorship program.
Because Trump University did not qualify for federal financial aid, students paid the thousands of dollars necessary to enroll in the programs out of their own pockets. As a result, the lawsuits are more similar to those facing fraudulent advertisers on late-night TV than those against for-profit higher-education companies, said Mr. Kinser.
Mr. Guillo said that, during lunch breaks at the seminars, students were encouraged to increase their credit-card limits and to apply for more credit cards so they would have more opportunities to purchase properties that weekend. However, the lawsuit says, Trump University officials asked students to do that so they would be able to afford pricier Trump University packages.
Prestige of Spokesman
Of course, central to the appeal of Trump University was Mr. Trump himself. As with all of his ventures, his name was spattered in all capital letters in promotions of his university. Advertisements and marketing materials included pictures of him and promises that he would personally teach students his techniques. In one ad, Mr. Trump was quoted as saying, "I can turn anyone into a successful real-estate investor, including you."
Students were also promised that they would be personally trained by Mr. Trump and have their pictures taken with him. "It ended up being a cardboard cutout of Mr. Trump," wrote Kathleen Meese in her affidavit.
News-media attention to the lawsuits has provided ample fuel for Mr. Trump’s opponents on the campaign trail. A conservative group, the American Future Fund, has aired attack ads featuring Trump University "victim" stories, including one with Mr. Guillo.
While Mr. Guillo fiercely opposes Mr. Trump’s run for president, he said his son is a big fan. "I think he still thinks Donald Trump would be a good president," Mr. Guillo said, laughing. "It only cost him $1,495, and Dad paid a lot more."