Six years after George Gjieli left federal prison, where he'd been sent for trying to break out a triple murderer, Donald Trump gave him a job running Trump Tower, where the billionaire businessman lived and worked.
For a decade, the Albanian immigrant, whom federal prosecutors had described as having "utter disdain for the laws of our country,'' was the live-in residential superintendent of Trump's most prized Manhattan high-rise. Meanwhile, he was accused in court papers of coordinating a cash-for-jobs racket inside the building, an Associated Press review has found.
Trump's decision to entrust responsibility of his namesake Fifth Avenue skyscraper to Gjieli adds to a growing public accounting of men with questionable backgrounds whom Trump has hired or partnered with. The AP and others have reported they include a Mafia-linked government informant whom Trump named as a senior adviser and a convicted cocaine dealer whom Trump supported in a letter to a federal judge.
Gjieli, who said Trump wrote him a recommendation letter when he left Trump Tower in 2001, denied taking kickbacks, including cash in envelopes delivered to his 29th floor office. In an interview, he said that the allegations were nonsense and that they mostly likely had been made by Romanian building workers harboring generations-old European ethnic rivalries.
Trump accents performance
The AP uncovered no evidence that Trump knew of money being paid for jobs. His presidential campaign spokeswoman, Hope Hicks, declined to address whether Trump ever conducted a background check before hiring Gjieli. She said Trump wasn't familiar with the kickback allegations.
"Mr. Trump's management style has led to the creation of one of the great private companies anywhere in the world,'' she said.
Trump himself has said he cares more about his supervisors' ability to get things done than their tactics or pasts, writing approvingly in his best-selling "Art of the Deal'' about a "con man'' project manager who most likely stole $50,000 annually from the company, including from his secretaries' funeral fund used to buy flowers.
"Even so, I was probably getting a bargain,'' Trump wrote, saying the con man — it was not Gjieli — was a good manager.
When Trump hired Gjieli after a face-to-face interview in 1991, the man didn't mention his criminal past and Trump didn't ask him about it, Gjieli said. Records of his conviction were publicly available at the time and were recently reviewed in detail by the AP. They show that government wiretaps from the 1980s captured Gjieli's efforts to bribe a U.S. Treasury agent with $100,000 to get a fellow Albanian immigrant serving life terms for triple murder out of a Michigan state prison.
Gjieli, in acknowledging that the imprisoned man had committed the crimes, used a racial epithet to describe the three black men killed during a 1976 robbery attempt, according to a transcript. Gjieli and two associates were later convicted in the jailbreak plan.
"The fact that [Gjieli and his associates] offered a special agent a bribe lets you know what they think of law enforcement,'' said Jim Covert, then an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, according to excerpts from the grand jury testimony from the 1980s. "They just figure they can buy anybody.''
'All the guys pay'
Paying kickbacks was also at the center of a wrongful-termination lawsuit against Trump and the Local 32BJ labor union, which is associated with the Service Employees International Union, filed in 2004 by a fired elevator operator named Ioan Ghilduta. He alleged Gjieli had forced workers to pay for their positions.
"Sure, all the guys pay the money,'' Ghilduta said in a 2005 deposition, according to court documents obtained by AP, describing the $1,000 in cash and a gold crucifix he said he was made to give to his boss in 1994. "It was a common practice when you get the job.''
Ghilduta didn't respond to phone calls, text messages or an in-person visit to his home.
The Local 32BJ union declined to comment for this story. The lawsuit was settled shortly after a judge ruled there were issues of fact a jury should hear. Ghilduta walked away with $7,500 apiece from Trump and the union, neither of which admitted wrongdoing.
In a close-knit service industry, word of Gjieli's influence spread, drawing in workers like Gabriel Mitrea, who recalled in an interview with the AP taking the elevator up to Gjieli's Trump Tower office in the late 1990s with $2,000 cash in an envelope to secure a doorman job at a non-Trump-owned building near Central Park.
Internal Trump Tower employee manuals show workers are expected to remain discreet about their duties, and some workers declined to discuss their experiences with the AP because they said they didn't want to get into trouble.
Discretion remains a Trump imperative: Earlier this year, he settled a lawsuit against a campaign worker whom the billionaire had sued for $10 million, claiming he'd violated a nondisclosure agreement.
Still, some workers, like Cornel Nedelcu, spoke glowingly about Trump and recalled receiving gifts from him, such as pairs of used Gucci shoes and trousers.
Nedelcu was named in a deposition as having known about kickbacks. He denied to the AP that he paid for his job but acknowledged that "others may have.''
Ilie Malancea did pay, according to his family. His wife recalled that, in the early 1990s, they had to purchase a gold chain that cost between $500 and $1,000 as a mandatory "gift'' for Gjieli.
For Malancea, who worked at Trump Tower for two decades, that payment foreshadowed further troubling interactions with his bosses, including Gjieli's successor, according to journal entries provided to the AP.
In one case, Malancea raised concerns about a faulty elevator and wrote he was lambasted for suggesting to a resident it was unsafe rather than merely out of order. In another, he complained his pay was withheld after coming late from a doctor's appointment following heart surgery.
He wrote in an undated journal entry that a supervisor was hostile "towards me (without apparent reason) lately using threats of being fired, choice words, constantly accusing me of breaking the rules, not being a team player?!?, being late etc.''
"Gjieli had a criminal past,'' said Jennie Malancea, 27, the daughter of the elevator operator, who is now deceased. "That's a pretty big deal for someone that you're hiring, and is hiring other people.''