JC Watts In Trump Cabinet? What They Have in Common: Shady Infomercials

Bill Scher

While Ben Carson was rumored to have been offered the post of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, Buzzfeed is now reporting that former congressman J.C. Watts is now the favorite.

Who leads HUD is incredibly important. The Obama administration is in the midst of implementing groundbreaking housing desegregation rules that would put real teeth behind the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Localities routinely escaped enforcement, and used subsidies to ghettoize minority populations, by using a lack of data as an excuse for weak policies. The new rules ensure HUD provides cities with data on segregations patterns and poverty concentration, robbing cities of any excuses and threatening delinquent cities with a loss of federal funds.

But the rules are not fully in place. ThinkProgress notes: “…only part of the rule is final. Key components of it won’t have made it through its required Office of Management and Budget review by the time Trump is sworn in … That means Trump doesn’t even have to do the heavy lifting of tearing up the Obama rule. He can just let it languish, unfinished, and direct his HUD secretary to return to business as usual.”

The New York Times reports that Carson is a longtime opponent of the rule, and there is no reason to assume Watts would be any better.

Watts has something that Carson, and Trump, do not: some experience in government. But he has a notably close link to Trump: both have been hired by the shady Milin family to star in get-rich-quick infomercials.

Watts was tapped to front the Milin scheme known as the National Grants Conference, which claimed to teach people how to get free grant money from the federal government. An ArsTechnica investigation explained:

NGC plied particular markets with mailers, newspaper ads, and its late-night infomercial, filled with customer testimonials. “I got $80,000 in grant money, and I don’t have to pay it back!” said a supposed NGC customer named LaDawn Morris, who had gotten the money for “property rehab.” Another supposed customer, Dave Morgan, testified about winning a “grant for up to $1.3 million.” Claims like these were lent credence by the assurances of former Congressman Watts and later by former Congressman J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.).

NGC had been started to “let everyone in this room play the game” typically reserved for the wealthy, frontman Rick Wiseman promised the crowd at one of the dozen conferences we attended in the course of our reporting … An NGC membership was an “investment in yourself,” Wiseman told one crowd. Poor people don’t know what an investment is, he explained—but successful people do. “I cannot teach people how to get $107,000 when they think $1,000 is a lot of money,” he said with a knowing smile.

Who was paying all that money? We interviewed nearly 50 customers who purchased NGC memberships and found that all had some source of income, but most were on the periphery of the middle class. Almost everyone appeared to pay by credit card. None of the people we interviewed had received any grants. Their experiences were telling, and some were eerily similar to allegations later leveled against Trump University.

The Milins ran afoul of state regulators. The New York Times reported, “In 2001, operating as National Grants Conference, the Milins settled with Florida authorities after being accused of violating the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. And in 2006, the Vermont attorney general sued the Milins for consumer fraud, ultimately fining them $65,000 and allowing customers to seek more than $325,000 in refunds.”

But that didn’t stop Trump from fronting the Milins’ next scam: the Trump Institute. The New York Times dug into it in June:

“That Trump Institute, what criminals they are,” said Carol Minto of West Haven, Conn., a retired court reporter who attended one seminar in 2009 and agreed to spend $1,997.94 to attend another before having second thoughts. She wound up requiring the help of two states’ attorneys general in getting a refund. “They wanted to steal my money,” she said.

… The institute was another example of the Trump brand’s being accused of luring vulnerable customers … Mr. Trump’s infomercial performance suggested he was closely overseeing the Trump Institute. “People are loving it,” he said in the program, titled “The Donald Trump Way to Wealth” and staged like a talk show in front of a wildly enthusiastic audience. “People are really doing well with it, and they’re loving it.” His name, picture and aphorisms like “I am the American Dream, supersized version” were all over the course materials.

Yet while he owned 93 percent of Trump University, the Trump Institute was owned and operated by Irene and Mike Milin, a couple who had been marketing get-rich-quick courses since the 1980s … Operating as the Trump Institute, the Milins pursued familiar tactics — and attracted familiar complaints, eventually earning an F from the Better Business Bureau.

Seminar attendees who later sought assistance from supposed experts over a Trump Institute toll-free phone line complained of being told to ignore what they had been taught in the seminars because it was outdated or useless advice … even the printed materials handed out to seminar attendees were based on a lie … much of the handbook’s contents were lifted without attribution from an obscure how-to guide published by Success magazine in 1995 …

When a grifter becomes president, it’s not surprising that he would tap fellow grifters to run his administration. But if HUD becomes another spoils-system piggy bank for administration cronies, instead of a force for desegregation and racial equality, it will be incumbent on us to explain why it happened, and why it didn’t have to happen.

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