In 2008, James Harris was hired to be an instructor with Trump University, the online school launched by reality TV star and real estate mogul Donald Trump three years earlier. Harris was a motivational speaker from Pompton Plains, New Jersey, with slicked-back hair and a shit-eating grin. There was an easy, energetic way about him—like Billy Mays having just returned from a Hamptons vacation—and his lectures, which relied on his alleged real life success story, could be captivating.
According to seminar transcripts filed in one class-action lawsuit against Trump University and reviewed by The Daily Beast, Harris told students that at 19, he found himself homeless and was forced to seek shelter in the grimy New York City subway. But his life changed, he said, when he met a “nice gentleman” who taught him about the real estate business. In no time, he said, he “became one of the top 12 producing brokers” in Manhattan. He no longer slept among vermin, but in a gated community in Buford, Georgia, with his wife and two sons.
But like so many rags-to-riches stories, Harris’s obscured a seedier truth about his character. Despite becoming the top instructor at an institution that billed itself as a university, he didn’t have a background in education or even, according to his story, a college degree. When he was hired in 2008, he was already a convicted felon—for aggravated assault, recent depositions in the Trump University case reveal. And according to 2011 divorce filings in Gwinnett County, Georgia, Harris threatened to kill his ex-wife and tried to have her Range Rover repossessed the day after she filed for a restraining order. Harris was so unruly, according to court records, that his children’s school went on “lockdown” when he picked up his kids one day, and officials required custody exchanges with his wife to occur off school property.
As Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz press their case that Trump is a “con man,” Trump University has emerged as the best evidence to support them. The school, which has been defunct since 2011, is the subject of two class-action lawsuits in California and a $40 million suit brought by Eric Schneiderman, the Attorney General from New York. Trump, who once boasted he “hand-picked” the university’s faculty, now claims that he doesn’t remember Harris or anybody else he employed. But lots of others do remember Harris—his name has appeared 17 times in affidavits. Trump, who is set to be a witness this coming spring or summer when one of the California cases goes to trial, will have to answer for his school’s failings and questionable associations not only on the stand, but out on the campaign trail and the debate stage as he seeks the Republican presidential nomination. It’s already eating up his time. On Monday night, he released a slick campaign video defending himself against the allegations of fraud.
Trump University began in earnest on May 23, 2005, a for-profit venture with a website, TrumpUniversity.com, and a collection of courses—on entrepreneurship, real estate, and marketing—available on CD-ROM for $300 a pop.
It was an obvious effort to capitalize on the runaway success of The Apprentice, which had debuted a year earlier and averaged 28 million viewers, but it was also, to hear Trump and his faculty explain it at the time, a gung-ho attempt to remodel education for the digital age—to make the sort of ideas once only accessible to the privileged few in the ivory towers of academia available to the reality television-viewing masses.
Students wouldn’t get degrees, but they would get experience and that experience, Trump explicitly promised in a collection of textbooks, could help them “Make Your Fortune In Real Estate.”“People are looking beyond the traditional business education model, which involves hours in the classroom and relies primarily on book learning,” Trump told reporters the day of the launch, in Trump Tower. “It’s really going to help a lot of people, which is what we really wanted to do.
“I love the concept,” he added, “of starting what I think will be a great university.”
From the outset, Trump University’s roster of brainy professors was a selling point. In a promotional video, Trump said, “I have terrific people coming in and we’re going to have professors and adjunct professors—absolutely terrific. Terrific people, terrific brains, successful, the best.”
He added, “We are going to have the best of the best and honestly if you don’t learn from them, if you don’t learn from me, if you don’t learn from the people that we are going to be putting forward, and these are all people that are hand-picked by me, then you’re just not gonna make it in terms of the world of success—and that’s OK! But you’re not gonna make it in terms of success.”
Trump, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, and the president of Trump University, Michael Sexton, who graduated from Dartmouth’s Tuck Business School in 2004, hired an impressive group of professors to create their curriculum and perform lectures: John Vogel, of Tuck, Don Sexton of Columbia Business School, Jack Kaplan of Columbia’s Eugene M. Lang Center for Entrepreneurship, and Roger Schank, who’d taught at Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, and had just finished creating online curricula for Carnegie Mellon in Silicon Valley when he received the call from Trump Tower.
But there were also lesser-known Trump University hires without academic pedigrees, including Stephen Libman, a Canadian travel agent-turned-motivational speaker, according to his LinkedIn profile, and Geoff Nowlin, an Arizona realtor with a website called Mentor4Lifetime.com.
Sonny Low, who paid $25,000 for a Trump mentorship in 2010, reported that Nowlin didn’t even “appear knowledgeable” about real estate or investing, according to one class-action lawsuit against Trump University.
Another instructor was Florida landlord and motivational speaker Gerald Martin, who continues coaching under a different real estate education program, FortuneBuilders. Last year, a Cincinnati Enquirer probe revealed that Martin gave students instructions on “flopping,” a controversial tactic that CNN called “mortgage fraud.”
(Attendees were required to sign a waiver promising not to sue the company if they later faced legal troubles, the Enquirer reported.)
Not everyone looked at Trump University and only saw dollar signs. For some of the professors involved, Trump’s enormous celebrity seemed like an opportunity to bring higher education to an audience that might not otherwise be exposed to it.
“At the time I was very intrigued, and still am, with this idea of doing online education,” Vogel, who has been a professor at the Tuck Business School at Dartmouth for over 20 years, told The Daily Beast. He said he flew to New York City and recorded one lecture about how to buy a house in the same space in which they filmed The Apprentice, and that was the extent of his involvement.
Vogel, who said he is not a party in the lawsuits against Trump University, was paid “about $1,800,” and though he was supposed to receive royalties for his work, he never did. Money, he said, didn’t motivate him anyway.
He used what he did make to buy a big-screen TV, “which I thought was the perfect thing to get from Donald Trump.”He hoped, he said, that Trump University’s online curriculum “would be like the free courses coming out of places like MIT with a nominal charge, like $40, that could be a win-win if enough people took them.”
But in the end, he said, he was “very disappointed to learn that although that was initially the plan, it evolved into more of a boiler room operation where students spent a lot of money on expensive courses.”
“You know, the guy doesn’t need money, right? So why he would do things that were less than honorable and you know, just made no sense to me,” he said.
The average per-person the cost of Trump University’s programs was considerable. Students started with a $1,495 three-day seminar, before some instructors, according to court papers, goaded them into buying mentorship packages totaling up to $34,995.
The lawsuits against Trump University claim some pupils, encouraged to increase their credit limits and to max out their credit cards, paid twice as much. Tarla Makaeff, one plaintiff, spent $60,000 one year to attend Trump University seminars, but only two real estate deals came to her. She declined both for appearing “flawed” and “unprofitable.”
Vogel said he met Trump only once, at the Trump Tower press conference, but they didn’t have some high-minded discussion about the university’s objectives. “All I remember was his hair was even stranger in person than on TV,” he said.
And his opinion of him now that he’s a presidential candidate is even less generous. “I basically disagree with all of his policies starting with immigration, where he called all the Mexicans rapists and wants to ban all Muslims,” he said. “I find most of his policy ideas vague but whenever he gets specific about things like torture I find it abhorrent.”
Schank, who taught at a number of prestigious institutions including Yale, also said he is not a part of any of the lawsuits. He described a more active role in the university than Vogel. He was, he told The Daily Beast, the architect of the curriculum, just as he had been at Carnegie Mellon, and the process was much the same: He interviewed experts on camera—including, at one point, Trump.
“I’m not sure I want to be quoted on my impression of him,” he laughed. “I have to say, I think he had many things on his mind besides Trump University. I can’t say he seemed very interested in it, you know, he had The Apprentice going on at the same time.”
Then, after about a year, something changed.“They put a certain amount of money into it and then the money stopped, suddenly,” he said. “I said, ‘What happened?’ And they said, ‘Well, we just don’t have any more money, and we need to make money quickly in some other way.’ And that was kind of the end.”
Trump decided to go in another direction, according to Schank. There would be no more online courses, no more lectures from Ivy League professors, no more books—just seminars, with speakers like Harris.Schank’s opinion is that Trump University is a fraud only insofar as all institutions of higher learning are. “Really most universities are fraudulent in the sense that they’re promising you’ll get a job when you graduate, which is really not true,” he said.“In its initial stages, its initial setup, it was genuine, it was good,” Schank said. “When they started doing real estate seminars, I just wondered about it... Maybe he didn’t have that much money. That was my thought at the time. There was a lot of pressure about money and discussion, ‘Well, we only have $3 million to start,’” he said.
He asked a mutual friend of Trump’s if he was really wealthy enough to start a university, he said, and the friend assured him he was both wealthy and motivated enough. “It didn’t turn out to be true,” he said. “I suspect he doesn’t have that kind of money—maybe he has it now.”
At the Trump Tower ribbon-cutting, Trump posed with his new employees and joked about their Ivy League salaries.“These guys,” he laughed, according to The Daily News, “are getting paid too much.”
Harris certainly seemed to be.Harris’s lectures peppered praise for Trump between foreclosure and home-flipping basics. He told would-be students that Trump launched the university “to leave a legacy,” and that Trump would be available to those who joined the program, according to event transcripts filed in court.“When you come in our Trump family, he owns this company,” Harris, who did not respond to a request for comment, told the crowd. “He did not sell his name to someone else.
“He will know your name, when you come in to this university,” he said. “And, this gave me the confidence necessary to achieve the great success that I now enjoy, after one year my company, now we are on $7 million in real estate.“Look at this mug, look at that confidence,” Harris continued, according to transcripts. “You will have the confidence, you will feel that nobody can stop you and then, you are in control of your destiny.”
On social media, he posed for photos in a plush, white bathrobe on a manicured lawn, flanked by a shiny silver Hummer and Mercedes-Benz. He told students they could live like him, too, and vowed to teach them to earn $25,000 a month, according to court filings.
“I work a couple hours a week. I do not even get out of my bathrobe,” Harris said.Harris’s Trump-like tendency to exaggerate was such a hit on the Trump University speaking circuit that his speeches were distributed to other instructors, according to a class-action lawsuit, and Harris was compensated accordingly.
Harris was paid $500,000 in 2008 and $400,000 in 2009, according to court documents related to his divorce. His salary for 2010, when Trump University was forced to change its name to “The Trump Entrepreneur Initiative,” has not been made public. At some point, Harris was also employed by Armando Montelongo Seminars, a venture similar to Trump University and also facing lawsuits from disgruntled students who claim they were scammed.
“One thing about James Harris is, he’s a very, very good salesperson at these real estate seminars. There’s no denying it,” Jeff Barnes, an attorney for Harris’s wife, told The Daily Beast in an interview last year.
“They [seminar companies] all rely on James’s fast-talking scheme to bring in the money,” Barnes said. “Nobody wants to get rid of James Harris for as much trouble as he is. He’s the necessary evil.”
Barnes was referring to Harris’s alleged antics during his divorce—which included fleeing to Florida to avoid the court proceedings. At one point in 2012, the court garnished Harris’s wages for failure to pay child support while he worked at Armando Montelongo, court records show.
In a May 2015 court filing for one of the Trump University lawsuits, attorneys singled out Harris for “false and misleading statements” about “Trump’s involvement and Trump University.” The falsehoods perpetuated by Harris, according to the filing, “were essential to the scheme to defraud and are expected to be presented as evidence at trial.”In the past, Harris claimed to be “Mr. Trump’s top nationwide instructor.” But last week when Trump was asked about Harris’s qualifications for the job, according to Yahoo, he said, “I don’t know the people. I wasn’t running it.”
Yet Trump University’s legal woes and his contentious divorce proceedings don’t appear to have hindered Harris’s get-rich-quick schemes anymore than they’ve hindered Trump’s presidential ambitions.Harris even created a new alias for himself, Jimmy Harrison, whose LinkedIn profile includes a work history of Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, Armando Montelongo, and his latest company, WebAForce.In a cluster of manic YouTube videos under the username, “Webaforce Mentor,” Harris urges people to join his investor network.
In one April 2014 video, Harris shouted at his camera from a dock on St. Martin in the Caribbean, which was filled with boats.
“People who have a lot of money, like the people out here behind me with all these boats… these people are multimillionaires and… they will fund your real estate deals,” Harris said.
“If you’re not a millionaire,” he added, “you are an idiot if you don’t get into real estate.”
—with additional reporting by Patricia Murphy