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Conservation easements are a massive scam

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On the south end of the Taconic Parkway you will drive by Donald J. Trump State Park. It’s basically an empty wasteland with no amenities except a decrepit tennis court, and the state hasn’t even bothered maintaining it since 2010. It exists because when Trump wasn’t given permission to turn the land into a golf course, he just vastly overvalued the property and got a huge tax writeoff for giving this low-value parcel of land to the state:

The next year, he donated 436 acres of land for a state park in Westchester and Putnam Counties in New York after development plans ran up against tough regulatory restrictions. While the precise value of the easement is not clear, he reported noncash charitable contributions of $34 million that year.

Mr. Trump had bought the property in the 1990s for $2 million, according to numerous published reports. Today it is overgrown and has few facilities or visitors.

The two most recent easement deductions are being examined by the New York attorney general, Letitia James — part of a broader investigation into whether the Trump Organization inflated the value of assets to get loans and tax benefits.

Which is needless to say part of a larger pattern:

Mr. Trump’s pronouncements of philanthropic largess have been broadly discredited by reporting, most notably in The Washington Post, that found he had exaggerated, or simply never made, an array of claimed contributions. His own charitable foundation shut down in 2018 amid allegations of self-dealing to benefit Mr. Trump, his businesses and his campaign.

But the tax data examined by The Times lends new authority and far greater precision to those findings. The records, encompassing his reported philanthropic activity through 2017, reveal not only its exact dimensions; they show that much of his charity has come when he was under duress — facing damage to his reputation or big tax bills in years of high income.

Of the $7.5 million in business and personal cash contributions reported to the Internal Revenue Service since 2005, more than 40 percent — $3.2 million — came starting in 2015, when Mr. Trump’s philanthropy fell under scrutiny after he announced his White House bid. In 2017, his first year in office, he declared $1.9 million in cash gifts. In 2014, by contrast, he contributed $81,499.

And his first two land-easement donations were made in what the tax records show was a period of significant taxable income — 2005 and 2006, prime time for his reality TV fame.

Part of this is about Trump’s unique level of corruption, but part of this is that there are many tax loopholes that are rife for extensive abuse by extremely rich people. It is, however, remarkable how much oxygen in 2016 was taken up by a life-saving charity that turned out to be remarkably clean for a charity run by extremely rich and well-connected people, while her opponent’s charity attracted little notice despite being a grift with no charitable purpose whatsoever.

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