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Internal Trump University records must be released, federal judge rules

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WASHINGTON — A federal judge has ordered the release of internal Trump University documents in an ongoing lawsuit against the company, including “playbooks” that advised sales personnel how to market high-priced courses on getting rich through real estate.

The Friday ruling, in which Judge Gonzalo Curiel cited heightened public interest in presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, was issued in response to a request by The Washington Post. The ruling was a setback for Trump, whose attorneys argued that the documents contained trade secrets.

Curiel’s order came the same day that Trump railed against the judge at a boisterous San Diego rally for his handling of the case, in which students have alleged they were misled and defrauded. The trial is set for November.

Trump, who previously questioned whether Curiel’s Hispanic heritage made him biased because of Trump’s support for building a wall on the Mexican border, said Friday that Curiel “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” Trump called the judge a “hater of Donald Trump” who had “railroaded” him in the case.

“I think Judge Curiel should be ashamed of himself. I think it’s a disgrace that he is doing this,” Trump said.

In his order, Curiel noted that Trump had emerged as a leading presidential candidate over the course of the civil case against Trump University and that Trump had “placed the integrity of these court proceedings at issue.” The judge pointed to a previous case to say that courts deciding on public disclosure must weigh “whether a party benefitting from the order of confidentiality is a public entity or official; and . . . whether the case involves issues important to the public.”

Trump University was started in 2004 to offer courses in entrepreneurship under the Trump brand. Trump gave his blessing, according to court documents reported previously, becoming a 93 percent owner of the new enterprise.

Two class action lawsuits being considered in San Diego have accused Trump University of using deceptive practices as it brought in millions of dollars from customers who were told they would learn Trump’s techniques to become successful in the world of real estate. Trump and his attorneys have vigorously denied the fraud claims, pointing to high ratings that students gave their courses at the time.

The Post intervened in April, arguing that Trump’s pursuit of the presidency made his business dealings a matter of public interest and that an inactive company had no compelling reason to maintain secrecy.

Some of the firm’s internal documents previously became public. A 2010 “playbook” published by Politico, for instance, directed sales people to rank students based on their liquid assets to determine who to target for buying courses.

Trump and his attorneys have said the company would return in some form after the case is resolved and that it would be damaged by the release of the documents.

Curiel seemed unconvinced. Trump’s “assertion that the information retains any commercial value is speculative given the lack of any support for the statement that Trump University ‘may’ resume operations,” the order released Friday said.

Curiel ordered that the playbooks and other records, numbering about 1,000 pages, be released by June 2.

In addition to the class action cases, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a $40 million lawsuit in 2013 alleging that Trump had defrauded more than 5,000 individuals through Trump University, which was never licensed as an educational institution.

Schneiderman alleged in the suit that Trump personally earned $5 million from the enterprise, in which sales personnel were assigned to get people to pay $1,495 for a three-day seminar in real estate techniques. In selling the courses, Trump released a marketing video that said, “We are going to have professors and adjunct professors that are absolutely terrific . . . and these are all people who are going to be handpicked by me.”

One of the university’s top executives, Michael Sexton, subsequently testified in one of the class action suits that “none of the professors at the live events” were handpicked by Trump. Depositions released in March quote Trump acknowledging a lack of close involvement with mentors and students.

The fraud allegations were highlighted during this year’s campaign for the GOP presidential nomination by some of Trump’s competitors and by a super PAC that opposed Trump.

Campaign and legal representatives for Trump could not be reached for comment Saturday. However, Jill A. Martin, vice president and assistant general counsel for the Trump Organization, said in a written statement in March that the allegations had “no substance.” She added that “Trump University was a professionally run company which provided students with a valuable and substantive education and the tools to succeed in business and real estate.”