Trump University 'Alums' Talk Getting 'Scammed' as President-Elect Pays Out $25 Million in Fraud Settlement

Trump University "alums" tell PEOPLE they felt "ripped off" after investing in the real estate program

Photo: Courtesy Cheryl Lankford

Cheryl Lankford, a war widow and single mom, invested $34,995 of a military death benefit into a Trump University “Gold Elite” program in 2009. It promised her instructors trained by Trump himself who would impart lessons through one-one-one mentoring on how to make money in real estate.

But those lofty promises were never realized for the woman whose husband died in 2007 while stationed in Iraq.

“For me, it was almost like they were selling it off of Donald Trump’s success: He owns these big hotels and now he’s showing other people how to be successful,” Lankford, of San Antonio, tells PEOPLE.

“I just wanted to make sure we were ok,” she says in explaining her investment in Trump U. “I wanted my son to have a nice home.”

But Lankford says she never learned any lessons of real estate and was never paired with a mentor who helped her. She says the only person who ever even called her back tried to pressure her into investing in his trailer park.

Frustrated, Lankford says she contacted the Better Business Bureau and the Texas Attorney General’s office weeks after paying her tuition.

Lankford eventually discovered that she was far from alone in her experience, and became part of two class-action fraud lawsuits filed against Trump University in California. Another was filed by the New York State Attorney General. In November, Trump agreed to a $25 million settlement of the three fraud lawsuits.

On Tuesday — the day before a court-ordered deadline — the money was wired into an escrow account, according to Amber Eck, an attorney for the plaintiffs, and will be distributed among some 7,000 former students of the for-profit so-called school.

Daniel Petrocelli, an attorney for Donald Trump, tells PEOPLE that the president-elect, who will be sworn in Friday, admits no wrongdoing by settling the charges.

“That’s a common provision in civil settlements like this one, says Eck, adding, “There was strong evidence to support our claims.”

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Lankford and other students who spoke to PEOPLE are upset that Trump was able to settle with no admission of guilt.

“Donald Trump scammed me and he scammed over 5,000 people,” she says. “The very same thing he did on a scale with Trump University he can now do globally.”

Former Trump University student Bob Guillo, 77, of Manhasset, New York, agrees: “It’s an absolute con.”

On Trump being president, Guillo says “it’s very scary. He has conned the people of the United States like he conned every student.”

Guillo, a retiree, also paid $34,995 for Trump University’s “Gold Elite” program due to its promises of mentorship.

He withdrew money from his retirement account to pay for what he says were seminars filled with high-pressure sales tactics. And far from learning unique real estate research methods, he and his classmates were told to use the real estate website to find properties and the website of the Internal Revenue Service to learn about available tax deductions, he says.

“I knew I could get this information by Googling it,” says Guillo. “It was another clue I was scammed.”

Guillo demanded a refund, but Trump University gave him back just $500. That is when he contacted the office of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The settled cases involved a lawsuit filed by Schneiderman against Trump and Trump University for what he called Trump’s “phony university,” and the two federal class action lawsuits in California against the school.

Schneiderman has said that students were defrauded out of $40 million, while Trump pocketed $5 million.

Trump lured students with his “celebrity status” and making “false promises to convince people to spend tens of thousands of dollars they couldn’t afford for lessons they never got,” Schneiderman said.

Even some of the school’s own onetime employees have said in court documents it was a “fraudulent scheme” to get students to invest large sums of money for products it failed to deliver.

Eck tells PEOPLE that students can expect to receive back at least half of what they spent — an amount that depends upon how many people file a claim by the March 6 deadline.

However, like fellow “alums,” Sherri Simpson isn’t happy the lawsuits settled. The Florida attorney invested over $35,000 with a business partner in the “Gold Elite” and other programs.

She says the mentor the pair paid for “disappeared” and neither received any return phone calls. A website that was supposed to give her proprietary real estate information on the then-depressed Florida market was outdated and useless, she says.

Did she learn anything for her money?

“Yeah,” says Simpson. “I learned I got ripped off.”

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