Trump wanted to fire women who weren't pretty enough, say employees at his California golf club

Donald Trump poses next to the 11th hole at Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif., in 2005. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Donald Trump wanted only the pretty ones, his employees said.

After the Trump National Golf Club in Rancho Palos Verdes opened for play in 2005, its world-famous owner didn’t stop by more than a few times a year to visit the course hugging the coast of the Pacific.

When Trump did visit, the club’s managers went on alert. They scheduled the young, thin, pretty women on staff to work the clubhouse restaurant  — because when Trump saw less-attractive women working at his club, according to court records, he wanted them fired.

"I had witnessed Donald Trump tell managers many times while he was visiting the club that restaurant hostesses were 'not pretty enough' and that they should be fired and replaced with more attractive women,” Hayley Strozier, who was director of catering at the club until 2008, said in a sworn declaration. 

Initially, Trump gave this command “almost every time” he visited, Strozier said. Managers eventually changed employee schedules “so that the most attractive women were scheduled to work when Mr. Trump was scheduled to be at the club," she said.

A similar story is told by former Trump employees in court documents filed in 2012 in a broad labor relations lawsuit brought against one of Trump’s development companies in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

The employees’ declarations in support of the lawsuit, which have not been reported in detail until now, show the extent to which they believed Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, pressured subordinates at one of his businesses to create and enforce a culture of beauty, where female employees’ appearances were prized over their skills.

A Trump Organization attorney, in a statement to The Times, called the allegations “meritless.”

In a 2009 court filing, the company said that any “allegedly wrongful or discriminatory acts” by its employees, if any occurred, would be in violation of company policy and were not authorized.

Employees said in their declarations that the apparent preference for attractive women came from the top.

“Donald Trump always wanted good looking women working at the club,” said Sue Kwiatkowski, a restaurant manager at the club until 2009, in a declaration. "I know this because one time he took me aside and said, ‘I want you to get some good looking hostesses here. People like to see good looking people when they come in.’ ”

As a result, Kwiatkowski said, "I and the other managers always tried to have our most attractive hostesses working when Mr. Trump was in town and going to be on the premises."

Trump has struggled to win the support of female voters as he seeks the nation’s highest office. In the past, he has insulted women’s appearances, sometimes calling them “pigs” or “dogs.”

Trump’s record with women got renewed attention after this week’s presidential debate, when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton told the story of a former beauty pageant winner who said Trump called her “Miss Piggy” when she gained weight.

Trump has previously defended himself by saying he has “great respect for women” and “will do far more for women” than Clinton. He has also said that “all are impressed with how nicely I have treated women.”

As part of the lawsuit over a lack of meal and rest breaks at Trump’s golf club about 30 miles south of downtown Los Angeles — his largest real estate holding in Southern California — several employees said managers staffed Trump’s clubhouse restaurant with attractive young women rather than more experienced employees in order to please Trump.

The bulk of the lawsuit was settled in 2013, when golf course management, without admitting any wrongdoing, agreed to pay $475,000 to employees who had complained about break policies. An employee’s claim that she was fired after complaining about the company’s treatment of women was settled separately; its terms remain confidential.

A public relations firm working for the Trump campaign referred questions about the lawsuit to one of the attorneys who represented the Trump National Golf Club in the case.

“We do not engage in discrimination of any kind and have always complied with all wage laws, including by providing our employees with meal and rest breaks,” said the attorney, Jill Martin, assistant general counsel for the Trump Organization.

The former employees’ statements primarily describe the club’s work culture from the mid- to late 2000s. The Times spoke at length to one of the ex-employees, who described in detail the allegations about workplace culture. The person declined to be quoted by name, citing a fear of being sued.

In their sworn declarations, some employees described how Trump, during his stays in Southern California, made inappropriate and patronizing statements to the women working for him.

On one visit, Trump saw “a young, attractive hostess working named Nicole ... and directed that she be brought to a place where he was meeting with a group of men,” former Trump restaurant manager Charles West said in his declaration.

“After this woman had been presented to him, Mr. Trump said to his guests something like, 'See, you don't have to go to Hollywood to find beautiful women,'” West said. “He also turned to Nicole and asked her, ‘Do you like Jewish men?’"

One of the few older people on the wait staff who served Trump, Maral Bolsajian, said she was “uncomfortable” when he visited, calling his behavior toward her “inappropriate.”

"Although I am a grown woman in my forties, Mr. Trump regularly greeted me with expressions like 'how's my favorite girl?'" Bolsajian said in a declaration. "Later, after he learned (by asking me) that I was married — and happily so — he regularly asked, 'are you still happily married?' whenever he saw me."

Trump also asked her to pose for photos with him, said Bolsajian, who added that she felt she “had little recourse given that Donald Trump is not only the head of the company but also one of the most powerful, well-known people in the United States.”

Bolsajian said, “In short, I consistently found Mr. Trump to be overly familiar and unprofessional.”

The lawsuit focused on the course’s high-pressure work culture. Employees said they were not allowed to take the breaks required under California law.

The statements about Trump’s preference for young, attractive employees were filed in support of a separate claim for retaliation, lodged after former restaurant host Lucy Messerschmidt, then 45, contended that she had been fired for complaining about age discrimination.

Jeffrey W. Cowan, a Santa Monica attorney who represented the employees in the lawsuit, said the case targeted Trump’s development company, VH Property Corp., but  “the evidence certainly suggested” that the club’s work culture flowed from Trump.

Although Trump was mostly absent from the course he purchased in 2002, workers said his company maintained a rigorous work environment that often left workers exhausted.

Employees said managers urged them to hurry through brief meal breaks, sometimes even expressing impatience with bathroom breaks.

"My manager insisted that because this was Trump's golf course, it had to be top-notch," one employee said in a declaration. "He was concerned that if Trump observed employees eating or resting, Trump would not be pleased."

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Another employee said his manager “seemed obsessed with the fact that this was Donald Trump's golf course,” believing that “Mr. Trump wouldn't like it if he saw employees sitting around because he would think the golf course was inefficient and overstaffed." A valet described a stretch where “someone got fired every week.”

One busboy said in a declaration that he took up smoking so that he would have an excuse for going outside for a break.

In response, Trump’s company filed declarations from more than a dozen other employees who said they regularly were offered lunch breaks of at least 30 minutes for every five-hour shift, and were counseled by managers if they didn’t take them.

Lili Amini, general manager, said in a declaration that the company implemented a firm policy about such breaks in 2009.

Employees said managers started instituting breaks after the class-action lawsuit was filed.

The Trump National Golf Club on the Palos Verdes peninsula, shown in 2005. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Female employees said they faced additional pressures.

Strozier, the former catering director, said Vincent Stellio — a former Trump bodyguard who had risen to become a Trump Organization vice president — approached her in 2003 about an employee that Strozier thought was talented.

Stellio wanted the employee fired because she was overweight, Strozier said in her legal filing.

"Mr. Stellio told me to do this because 'Mr. Trump doesn't like fat people' and that he would not like seeing [the employee] when he was on the premises,” wrote Strozier, who said she refused the request. (Stellio died in 2010.)

A year later, Mike van der Goes — a golf pro who had been promoted to be Trump National’s general manager — made a similar request to fire the same overweight employee, Strozier said.

“Mr. van der Goes told me that he wanted me to do this because of [the employee's] appearance and the fact that Mr. Trump didn't like people that looked like her,” Strozier wrote. 

When Strozier protested, Van der Goes returned a week later “and announced he had a plan of hiding [the employee] whenever Mr. Trump was on the premises,” Strozier wrote.

West, who worked as a restaurant manager at the club until 2008, wrote that Van der Goes ordered him “to hire young, attractive women to be hostesses.” West also said Van der Goes insisted that he “would need to meet all such job applicants first to determine if they were sufficiently pretty."

Van der Goes, who worked at the club until 2008, did not respond to requests for comment, though he defended Trump in a February interview with the Santa Clarita Gazette.

“He’s not a racist. He’s not a bigot,” said Van der Goes, who called Trump “an astute businessman and a marketing genius.”

Employees said several women quit or were fired because they were perceived as unattractive.

A server, John Marlo, recalled seeing a co-worker crying in 2007. The woman had wanted to be promoted to server.

"She told me that she was upset because a manager had told her that she couldn’t be a server because of she had acne on her face,” Marlo said in a declaration. “According to her, she was qualified for the job and wanted it, but couldn't get it solely because of her acne."

The woman quit soon after, Marlo wrote.

Messerschmidt, the employee who said she was fired in retaliation for complaining about age discrimination, said in 2008 that one of her managers, Brian Wolbers, changed her schedule to give her time off during one of Trump’s visits because Trump "likes to see fresh faces" and "young girls."

Wolbers did not respond to a request for comment.

Gail Doner, who worked as a food server from 2007 to 2011, wrote that she was 60 and had often been frustrated by the inefficiency of the restaurant’s young, inexperienced hostesses, who “usually were not competent but were kept anyway.”

“The hostesses that were the youngest and the prettiest always got the best shifts,” Doner wrote. 

Meanwhile, Doner — who had 20 years of experience working for wine vendors, and was at “the top of [her] game” while working for Trump National — said managers slowly cut back her shifts until they stopped scheduling her at all, “effectively firing [her].”

“It did not appear to me that this reduction in shifts was happening to any of the younger, more attractive female food servers," Doner said. She added: “I chose not to fight to get my job back because by that point I was fed up with the toxic environment and the way that I was treated.”


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