When Central Park’s newly renovated Wollman Rink opened in November, it seemed a triumph for then mayor Bill de Blasio. In the wake of the January 6 storming of the Capitol, de Blasio had brayed that New York City “doesn’t do business with insurrectionists,” and tried—and failed—to strip the Trump Organization of its longtime city contract to manage the property.
And so once that contract expired, de Blasio was delighted to welcome Wollman’s first new operator in two decades: Wollman Park Partners (W.P.P.), an entity that consists of real-estate developer the Related Companies, whose chairman and founder is billionaire Stephen Ross; Equinox, the fitness chain whose investors include principals of Related; and Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, which is co-owned by private-equity billionaires Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who respectively made their fortunes at Apollo and Blackstone.
“All the profits are going right back into the community!” de Blasio boasted at Wollman Rink’s grand reopening. “All of it! Isn’t that astounding? Isn’t that beautiful?”
But amid all the talk about dumping Trump and “reclaiming this space,” there were some details about W.P.P. and its principals that never got mentioned.
Such as the fact that both Ross and Harris have significant ties to Trump. Ross, who built New York City’s $25 billion Hudson Yards, was one of Trump’s biggest fundraisers, garnering him millions for his 2020 re-election campaign. Harris, who owns the Philadelphia 76ers and the New Jersey Devils (and recently moved his family from New York to Miami), advised the Trump administration on infrastructure policy in 2017, meeting repeatedly with Jared Kushner.
Less than a year later, according to The New York Times, Apollo loaned Jared Kushner’s family real-estate business $184 million to refinance a Chicago tower—triple the size of the average commercial-property loan Apollo makes. The loan appeared so egregiously quid pro quo that it prompted an investigation by Trump’s own White House counsel. (No charges were ever brought.)
Another fact that didn’t get mentioned about W.P.P., whose profits are, according to the former mayor, “going right back into the community”—it is not actually a charity. And how exactly it will direct its profits is not clear.
Last April, Air Mail reported the allegation that Barry Weisselberg, who was then Trump’s longtime manager of Wollman Rink, routinely collected the cash from it and walked it over to the office of his father, Allen Weisselberg, then the Trump Organization’s C.F.O.—who also paid much of the living expenses for Barry and his family.
In July, New York prosecutors indicted Allen Weisselberg, as well as the Trump Organization, for a 15-year-long tax scheme whose purpose was to “compensate Weisselberg and other Trump Organization executives in a manner that was ‘off the books’” and intended to “defraud federal, New York state, and New York City tax authorities.” Charges included conspiracy and falsifying business records. Both Allen Weisselberg and the Trump Organization have pleaded not guilty.
Barry Weisselberg was not charged in the indictment. However, he was anonymously cited in it as “a family member of [Allen] Weisselberg, who was employed by the Trump Organization,” and who lived in various Trump Organization–owned apartments—one at below market rent, and another rent-free—without reporting them as part of his income, despite his being legally required to do so. (These facts were also reported in the April Air Mail story.)
The indictment mentions Wollman Rink twice—once to note that Allen Weisselberg and other Trump Organization executives received “a substantial portion of their end-of-year bonuses … in the form of checks drawn on other Trump Organization entities, including Wollman Rink Operations LLC,” and once to note that Weisselberg falsely reported these checks as “non-employee compensation,” and specifically as “self-employment income,” so that he could illegally make “annual contributions to … a tax-deferred pension plan” to which he would not otherwise have been entitled.
The extensive Trump Organization illegality alleged in the indictment—as well as this week’s news that Mazars, Trump’s longtime accounting firm, has cut ties with him and said that Trump’s last nine years of financial statements could no longer be relied upon—raises an important question with regard to Wollman Rink, which was largely a cash business: Might Trump have under-reported Wollman’s cash revenues in order to reduce the fees he owed the city, as well as his taxes?
According to a city audit of Trump’s Wollman Rink Operations (W.R.O.), Trump in fact was under-reporting rink revenue—at least for the 2004–05 rink operating year, which was the audit’s focus.
Under W.R.O.’s license at that time, Trump was required to pay the city the higher of either a minimum annual fee of $1.5 million (a fee which increased incrementally over the life of the contract up to $1.8 million) or 28 percent of gross receipts plus 56 percent of food-service receipts. Critical to honoring this agreement was the keeping of accurate, and segregated, books and records.
But, according to the audit, Trump’s W.R.O. did “not maintain the daily sales and receipt records as required by the agreement.”
Not only was Trump depressing the rink’s income, but, as the audit discovered, W.R.O. also “inappropriately included $150,000 in food-service receipts as part of its reported gross receipts derived from its skating operation.” According to the audit, this allowed the Trump Organization to falsely claim it owed New York City only its minimum $1.5 million in annual fees—not the higher amount that it actually did. Just for 2004–05 alone, the audit revealed that W.R.O. owed the city an additional $197,030 in fees.
Curiously, the city did not audit Trump’s W.R.O. again—and yet the Trump Organization managed the rink for another 14 years.
But now, with Trump’s W.R.O. out and Ross and Harris’s W.P.P. in, the city would seem perfectly positioned to gain visibility into what might prove to be additional Trump financial shenanigans at Wollman. After all, if the city were to suddenly start earning more money from Wollman, that could be a red flag indicating that Trump had continued misreporting and/or under-reporting the rink’s revenues.
Yet W.P.P. has an entirely different deal—one which has no revenue sharing at all.
Might Trump have under-reported Wollman’s cash revenues in order to reduce the fees he owed the city under his lease, as well as his taxes?
Under their agreement, W.P.P. pays the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation a flat fee for each of the five years it manages the rink, starting with $3 million in 2021–22, and going up to $3.6 million by 2025–26. While this might seem generous, consider that from 2014 to 2019 rink revenue alone (excluding food and special events) ranged from $5.7 million to $6.6 million, and consider Mazars’s recent disavowal of Trump’s financial statements, and one can easily see how W.P.P.’s actual, total Wollman revenue could be substantially higher than $6.6 million. W.P.P.’s non-revenue-sharing agreement is so unusual that then city comptroller Scott Stringer singled it out for critique at a public hearing before the city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee last summer.
Without the city having the potential to earn a percentage of Wollman’s gross revenue, it will not financially benefit in the event that rink improvements made by W.P.P. lead to increased attendance and/or an increase in rink revenue. The people who will benefit in this scenario are W.P.P.’s “community partners,” who for now include Figure Skating in Harlem, Ice Hockey in Harlem, Green City Force, the Boys’ Club of New York, and the YMCA of Greater New York. And given that W.P.P. is entitled to use “excess proceeds” from the operations of Wollman to reimburse itself for the minimum of $7.25 million it has committed to spend on rink capital improvements, the deal seems a sour one for city taxpayers.
So the fact that W.P.P. says it is taking on the rink in order to do something philanthropically generous for New York City, and is offering inclusive and diverse programming, only makes this switch to a non-revenue-sharing contract that much more puzzling.
Could it be that changing the contract for Wollman Rink, and also raising some admission prices—while, what do you know, at the same time lowering food prices—has a purpose? And could that purpose be to obscure past possible revenue under-reporting and/or mis-categorizing of food-service revenues done under Trump’s management?
“The innuendo and simply false references implied by your questions are bizarre,” said a W.P.P. spokesperson, who declined to answer nearly all of Air Mail’s questions, including how and why Harris and Ross teamed up. “W.P.P. will receive no return on its significant capital investment beyond being paid back with zero interest for capital improvements. All other funds go to support youth participation in ice sports.”
De Blasio, for his part, did not respond to requests for comment.
Parks and Recreation
Perhaps even more curious than the unusual terms of W.P.P.’s contract with the Parks Department is the fact that W.P.P. is not a tax-exempt charitable entity.
While its Web site says that “all net proceeds from the project will be invested in the Rink, community partners and the City,” could the money or benefits that W.P.P. gives to these “community partners” positively impact the prospective real-estate-development deals of W.P.P.’s principals?
W.P.P. declined to answer. However, its spokesperson said W.P.P.’s financials will be “publicly available.”
At the Wollman reopening, I asked Josh Harris if W.P.P. was a 501(c)(3), the official designation for a tax-exempt charitable entity.
“I don’t know the official designation,” he told me. “But all the profits and proceeds go to charity.” Given that Harris has made a literal fortune in finance and runs his own nonprofit family foundation, it seems hard to believe he would not know what sort of legal entity he was a principal of.
“Jon will know,” he said, gesturing to Jon Fascitelli, who works for him as head of real estate at Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment.
“It’s not a 501(c)(3) per se,” Fascitelli told me, as if that were some kind of unofficially official designation, “but within the lease, within everything we negotiated with the city, it’s very clear that we give all our profits back.”
Then why not become a nonprofit?, I asked. After all, if W.P.P. registered as a 501(c)(3), it could fundraise for Wollman Rink, just as the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy has done for Lasker Rink, which is Central Park’s less profitable venue. In fact, the Conservancy, to which the Parks Department announced it was awarding the contract for Lasker back in 2018, has committed to raising an astonishing $100 million for Lasker’s restoration, which is currently underway.
Becoming a 501(c)(3) is a “great suggestion,” Fascitelli told me. But then he explained how, given the short time frame that W.P.P. had for getting the rink renovated, they would not have been able to fundraise before reopening last fall.
“If you’re not a charity, no one sees where the money goes,” a former New York State official told me. “If you are a charity, on your 990 tax form you can see the salaries of the key employees, how much is spent on program costs versus staff costs. It provides detail. And there’s lots more regulation.”
Some local politicians are wondering why the Central Park Conservancy was not awarded the contract to run Wollman. After all, not only has it been managing Central Park for 40 years, it is a nonprofit and had pledged to raise and invest $50 million to rebuild Wollman and make it more community-focused.
“I called everybody at Parks and said, ‘Why not give [the contract] to the Central Park Conservancy?,’” Gale Brewer, the city-council member whose district includes the park, told me. “If we’re really going to be equitable about it, it seems to me it should have gone to a nonprofit. I don’t know what happened.”
According to former parks commissioner Mitchell Silver, who resigned from his post last July 31, just nine days after the Parks Department signed its contract with W.P.P., “we had reached out to [the Conservancy] early on to see if they expressed interest [in managing Wollman]. Maybe that was two years ago. They said they preferred to just focus on Lasker. When they expressed interest, that was too late to meet the deadline of ensuring that [Wollman] would be open by November of this year.”
But according to a spokesperson for the Central Park Conservancy, “the Conservancy requested taking over Wollman Rink before the R.F.P. was issued, and we guaranteed the facility would be open for the Fall 2021 season.” The Conservancy did not, according to the spokesperson, participate in the R.F.P. process because “as a longtime city partner in the park we did not feel it was appropriate to bid against a commercial operator. Separately, we offered our own proposal which included a minimum $50 million investment in Wollman.”
In response to a FOIL request, the Parks Department provided Air Mail with proposals submitted by 13 different entities who responded to the R.F.P. for Wollman, including none other than Trump’s Wollman Rink Operations, which, in its cover letter, described its management of the rink as “the perfect case study of what a great public / private partnership should be.”
Anyone Seen the Zamboni?
At the Wollman Rink reopening, a broad array of New York–themed songs were played and sung, everything from Frank Sinatra to Billy Joel to Jay-Z. Mixed in among them, however, was a song that did not fit the pattern: “Take a Chance on Me,” by Abba.
And yet, in retrospect, that selection seems perfectly fitting. After all, in choosing a for-profit entity that says it will function like a nonprofit, although it is not regulated as such, the city is indeed taking a chance. For W.P.P.’s part, things are great.
“We would have taken as long a lease as we could have,” Fascitelli told me.
But of course. For decades, Wollman Rink was a profitable enterprise for Donald Trump—perhaps even more than his financial statements indicated. Why wouldn’t his chums, who are far bigger real-estate developers than he ever was, now want to control it?
Johanna Berkman is an investigative journalist who writes about finance and the wealth culture. She previously worked at Goldman Sachs. Read her previous articles about Trump and Wollman Rink here and here