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The Loan Shark Trump Freed From Prison Is Lending Money Again

Feb. 10, 2022, 5:01 AM

Before he went to prison, and before he was released on orders from President Donald Trump, Jonathan Braun was a prolific predatory lender. In eight years he advanced almost $80 million to small-business owners across the U.S. He targeted those desperate enough to accept extreme interest rates—often higher than 1,000% a year—and when they inevitably fell behind, he squeezed them for more money. He bullied some and menaced others. “You suck, you’re dead, you’re a piece of shit, you should drop f---ing dead,” Braun told one of his clients in an exchange caught on video. Often he would use dubious legal tactics to drain their bank accounts.

Even as borrowers complained in court that they’d been frightened by his threats and ruined by his ripoffs, Braun faced no punishment. It wasn’t that the authorities were unaware of him. In fact he’d been operating as a loan shark while out on bail after a 2010 arrest on unrelated federal drug-trafficking charges, wearing an electronic ankle bracelet monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice. His trial was delayed for years without explanation.

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Braun’s improbable career as a government-supervised predatory lender seemed to come to an end in 2020, when he was finally sent to a prison north of New York City to serve a 10-year sentence for the drug charges. While he was there, New York’s attorney general sued him for usury, fraud, and harassment related to his lending. But then, in January 2021, he secured a last-minute grant of clemency from Trump. His sentence was commuted, and he was released. “Pardon Frees a Drug Smuggler Known for Violence and Threats,” as the New York Times put it in a front-page story.

Braun works in a second-floor office above a bakery and a Judaica shop in Brooklyn’s Borough Park.
Photographer: Philip Montgomery for Bloomberg Businessweek

Trump didn’t explain why Braun had been freed. A statement put out by the White House misspelled Braun’s first name, exaggerated the amount of time he’d spent in prison, and didn’t mention the attorney general’s ongoing lawsuit. “Upon his release, Mr. Braun will seek employment to support his wife and children,” it said. According to someone with knowledge of the arrangement, Braun told his probation officer he’d be working for the president of a cleaning service.

But among Braun’s associates and rivals, there were murmurs that he’d gone right back to lending money to very desperate people. A few months ago, tipsters began sending me the names of companies they said he’d started running. A search of court records revealed a network of at least a dozen entities that advance money at high rates and frequently sue borrowers. Tallying the debts in the cases showed the companies had loaned at least $17 million since Braun’s release, and that’s just the loans that ended up in court. Braun’s name wasn’t on any of the legal papers, but the tipsters told me he was in charge of the whole operation. They pointed me to an address in Borough Park, an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in central Brooklyn.

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One source said Braun had been arriving there each day around 10 a.m. in a white Bentley Bentayga SUV. And so, on a Thursday morning in November, I waited across the street from a two-story brick building with a bakery and a Judaica shop on the ground floor.

At 10:47 a.m., I spotted him: a thin, balding man of 38, with a reddish tan. He was wearing a blue track jacket and driving a white Bentley just like they said. He steered the SUV toward the building, stopping to honk 10 or so times at someone blocking the ramp to an underground garage. When he looked up, his close-set eyes were unmistakable. Braun was back.

The Justice Department has a backlog of 18,292 requests for presidential pardons or commutations. Government lawyers vet the applications—looking for nonviolent offenders who are serving unfairly long sentences, prisoners suffering from critical illness or old age, and people who’ve shown that they’ve changed their ways—then pass them along to the White House.

Braun was an unlikely candidate. Prosecutors had accused him of being a high-volume drug trafficker who’d coordinated with the Hells Angels and other organized crime groups to move $6 million of marijuana a week across the Canadian border into the U.S. At times, the prosecutors said, he’d resorted to violence. He also was still facing the lawsuit from New York Attorney General Letitia James, who’d called him a “modern-day loan shark.” While he was in prison, he was sued by someone who said Braun had cheated him on illegal sports bets. Braun denies all the allegations.

Luckily for Braun, Trump’s approach to clemency was as erratic as the rest of his presidency. Although administration loyalists dispute this, Trump seems mostly to have ignored the formal process. Instead he gave out pardons and commutations to whomever he felt like, including personal friends and those who’d paid large fees to associates of his. According to the Federal Sentencing Reporter, a legal journal, only about 25 of Trump’s 238 pardons and commutations went through official review. To pick one particularly egregious corruption allegation stemming from this approach: John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer convicted of leaking secrets to reporters, told me an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s offered to sell him a pardon for $2 million. Giuliani denied this; a Trump spokeswoman didn’t return calls.

Braun’s family seemed eager to curry Trump’s favor. They turned to Alan Dershowitz, the TV jurist and Harvard Law School professor who represented Trump in his first impeachment trial. Dershowitz was helping several others seeking commutations, including real estate fraudsters and a death row inmate. He told me Braun’s father regularly called him on Fridays before sundown, appealing to their common Jewish faith.

Dershowitz (right) lobbied Trump for Braun’s release.
Photographer: Ken Cedeno/UPI/Alamy

Associates of Braun’s say he’s bragged about paying millions of dollars to various Trump-connected intermediaries to secure clemency. But Dershowitz told me he’d taken on Braun’s case for free, as he did for many other convicts. “No lawyer in American history has ever done a higher percentage of pro bono cases in his career than me,” Dershowitz said. “Not John Adams, not Abraham Lincoln, not Thurgood Marshall.” Later in the conversation he acknowledged that he may have received a small fee from a Jewish organization to cover his expenses. He said he couldn’t remember who paid him or exactly how much it was.

Braun’s release surprised many in his field, which is euphemistically called the merchant cash-advance business. It’s an industry of fast-talking salespeople who frequently operate from modest offices in Manhattan’s financial district and the outer reaches of Brooklyn, dangling offers of quick money to desperate small-business owners. Among those working in the lower rungs of the business are stock scammers, mortgage fraudsters, and gangsters. Their interest rates are higher than what Mafia loan sharks once charged, but they get around usury laws by saying they’re not lending at all—they’re buying the money that businesses will make in the future, at a discount. Courts generally accept this reasoning.

I’d been hearing about Braun since 2014, when I started writing about his industry. Even rivals who defended the ethics of charging 1,000% interest rates described his tactics as unconscionable. These lenders complained that Braun would find and cheat their customers before they could collect on their own loans. But they were afraid of him and would clam up if I asked them to speak on the record. It seemed his drug-trafficking background worked to his advantage—anyone with Google could see that he stood accused of whipping an associate with a belt and that one of his co-defendants had been found dead of a gunshot wound in a torched car in Los Angeles. (They’d also see that Braun had been dubbed a “mama’s boy drug dealer” by the New York Post, because he’d been living with his parents.)

Some suspected that Braun was an informant and that he must have at least the tacit support of law enforcement. “He’s fearless,” one cash-advance executive told me in 2018. “Either he’s crazy, or he knows he’s covered.”

When I looked into Braun’s lending operation, I learned that he was one of the most frequent users of an arcane legal instrument called a confession of judgment, which used the New York state court system to grab money from borrowers’ bank accounts. Before getting a loan, his customers would have to sign a statement giving up their right to defend themselves in court. Armed with one of these confessions, Braun could accuse the borrowers of not paying, even without proof, then legally seize their assets before they knew what had happened. Many of his customers told me he’d abused this power by taking more than he was owed.

Braun’s aggressiveness also made him terrifying to those in hock to him. Some said he would threaten to beat them or harm their families. “You don’t know who you’re f---king dealing with. We can get you wherever we want,” he told one borrower, who started carrying a gun, court papers say. “We know where you live,” he said to another. “We’ll go after your family.”

Back then, with Braun ignoring my calls and emails, I stopped by his 12th-floor office in a shabby tower in downtown Manhattan. He berated me in front of about a dozen employees. “What are you, Inspector F---ing Gadget?” he yelled, spittle flying.

Then he told me he needed a cigarette and asked me to follow him to the roof. I suggested street level instead. Once we got downstairs, and he’d been calmed by one Newport after another, Braun turned plaintive. It seemed that his gangster talk was mostly an act, or at least that he could turn it off when it suited him. In a conversation that lasted almost two hours, he denied he’d ever cheated or threatened anyone. He suggested I wanted to hurt his family and said I was harassing him. Then he said I should come work with him.

In December 2018, I published my story about Braun, part of a series I wrote with Zachary Mider about abuses in the cash-advance industry. The series began with a Bloomberg Businessweek cover story and spurred an uproar among New York state lawmakers, who sharply limited confessions of judgment. A few months later, the delays in Braun’s drug-trafficking case finally ended. The timing may have been a coincidence, but Braun didn’t seem to think so. On May 28, 2019, his sentencing hearing was held at a federal courthouse in Brooklyn. He stared at me as he walked in.

“Zeke Faux,” he said, slowly.

Braun was facing a potential decades-long sentence, but he didn’t look worried. Two drug traffickers had told me by then, in letters sent from prison, that Braun was an informant, and a person who’d spoken extensively with him had said he expected to be let off with time served because of the information he’d provided. Braun’s lawyer told the court he’d put his past behind him and was now a “successful businessperson” and a responsible husband and father.

“Your Honor, I just wanted to let you know and the court know that I’m really sorry for my wrongdoings in the past, and I’ve changed a whole lot since then, and I have many, many reasons to continue to do good in the future in my current lifestyle,” Braun said.

But the judge, Kiyo Matsumoto, said she’d received anonymous letters alerting her to civil lawsuits against Braun. In one, a man claimed that Braun had pushed him off a deck; in another, a borrower said Braun had threatened him with violence. She asked the prosecutor, Craig Heeren, if Braun had done anything during his years out on bail that might warrant a longer sentence. Heeren said he didn’t think so.

“I believe there was a fairly thorough investigation of that done,” Heeren said. “We’ve met with Mr. Braun as well and spoken to him directly about the conduct, and he’s obviously denied it.”

The judge was unconvinced. She sentenced Braun to 10 years. Braun’s friends and family members looked shocked. Matsumoto told Braun he could take a few months to get his affairs in order before reporting to prison. As everyone walked out of the courtroom, Braun confronted me again. “This guy’s a c---sucker!” he yelled. “F--- you! You know what you do!”

The minimum-security prison in Otisville, N.Y., where Braun served his one-year stint, has long been a favored destination for Jewish white-collar criminals unlucky enough to wind up behind bars. An Orthodox rabbi holds services in a chapel lined with Hebrew texts. Lawrence Dressler, a lawyer who served time for mortgage fraud and now blogs about goings-on at Otisville under his prison nickname, Larry Noodles, recalled celebrating holidays with meals that included challah, freshly made hummus, and gefilte fish. Among Braun’s fellow inmates were former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Braun, who attended services at Young Israel of Staten Island on the outside, seems to have coped well enough. Two men who were there at the time said that his visitors came in Bentleys, clad in Gucci, and that he had another inmate cook him meals with contraband vegetables.

On Jan. 20, 2021, the day of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Braun walked out of Otisville. He told a friend that he planned to stop for a mani-pedi on his way back to Brooklyn. His family sent out last-minute invitations for a “Freedom Bash.” That night, at an event space in Borough Park, Avi Perets, a popular Israeli singer, performed as merchant cash-advance salesmen buttonholed Braun and asked him for advice.

Within a few months, the tips about him started coming to me, in direct messages, texts, and late-night calls. “Let me know if you need any info on Jon Braun,” one wrote. “You’re not even at the tip of the iceberg,” another texted. I started calling around to anyone in Braun’s circles, and eventually eight of his current and former business partners and friends shared details of Braun’s new operation in Borough Park. Most asked for anonymity, because they’re afraid of him.

They told me that on the second floor of that brick building on Brooklyn’s 13th Avenue about two dozen men work the phones. Some sweet-talk potential borrowers; others browbeat those who’ve fallen behind. Most use aliases when speaking with clients, and some don’t even know each other’s real names. Braun sits in a windowless room off the main bullpen—sometimes puffing on a vape pen, sometimes Newports—and reviews borrowers’ bank statements.

A parking garage in the building where Braun works in Borough Park.
Photographer: Philip Montgomery for Bloomberg Businessweek

He doesn’t talk to customers on the phone much anymore, according to the current and former business partners, and he’s careful not to sign his name to any documents. Two of his cousins serve as his top lieutenants. But it’s Braun, the sources said, who decides who gets a loan, how much they’re charged, and how to collect the debts.

The customers are truckers, contractors, cleaners, and butchers, in big cities and small towns from Texas to New York. In interviews, the borrowers said they’d known they were taking on costly debt. But some said salespeople tricked them by promising they’d get a second, cheaper loan once they paid back the first one or ripped them off by holding back as much as a third of the loan proceeds for hidden fees. The better loans never materialized. It sounded a lot like Braun’s old lending business.

“These guys prey on people like me—people who’ve put so much money in their business that it’s affected their credit,” said Brian Massey, a mechanic in Memphis. He said he was promised a $20,000 loan on good terms and ended up with $7,000 at an annualized interest rate of 3,424%. In January, overwhelmed by the payments on that debt and other cash advances, he closed his shop and took a job as a security guard, he said.

Others also recounted having to lay off employees, borrow money from others, or close their doors. One, an executive recruiter, took his own life in May, leaving a note citing financial distress, according to an investigator’s report, though the recruiter’s friends told me his main concern had been a larger debt he owed to a Mafia-connected loan shark in Florida.

Braun rarely uses confessions of judgment to collect his debts now that the tactic is heavily restricted in New York. But he’s found a similar maneuver in a neighboring state. In more than 100 cases in a Connecticut court, companies associated with Braun—including Matrix Advance, Bridge Funding Cap, and Gofund Advance—have used a legal procedure called prejudgment attachment. It relies on a clause deep in the fine print of the documents that borrowers must sign to get a loan, which allows a lawyer to go into their bank accounts and make their deposits inaccessible. With Braun essentially holding their money hostage, the borrower will usually agree to a settlement on his terms.

That’s what happened to Marvin Jackson, a trucker in Round Rock, Texas, who’d named his company Amazing Grace Carrier Inc., after his grandmother’s favorite song in church. He agreed to borrow $15,000 from Fundura Capital in June and pay back $799 a day. After fees, Jackson received only $11,000, and three weeks later, after he’d missed payments, Fundura used prejudgment attachment to have his bank account locked. It sued him for $25,495—more than twice what he’d received. Jackson quickly agreed to a settlement. “I’m a small business trying to get off the ground. They were trying to bury me,” he said.

Sruly Getter, a former electrician who’s now one of Braun’s top salesmen according to the sources familiar with the business, signed one of the court documents in Jackson’s case. But when I called him, he denied any connection to Braun. “I have no idea who’s Jonathan Braun,” Getter said. This was less than convincing, because based on a description from one of the tipsters, I was pretty sure I’d seen him arriving at the Borough Park building in his own Bentley. Pressed, he admitted only to knowing of Braun. “From what I’ve heard, he’s a legend,” he said.

Other salesmen’s stories weren’t much more credible. Joseph Kroen, a former car salesman who’s signed court papers for some of the companies in the network, acknowledged that he’d worked with Braun, but he said Braun was only a consultant who advised him on how to best deal with people. “He knows what people want, he knows how to read people, he knows how to make people live in peace,” Kroen said. A third salesman said having Braun as a consultant was like getting stock tips from Warren Buffett. “You would be stupid not to take his advice,” he said.

One of my tipsters gave me Braun’s new phone number, and in November I called. First he hung up on me. When we talked later, he said he knew all about my recent reporting. He said that he’d heard recordings of me asking questions based on what he said was false information and that he knew who my sources were. He even texted over a photo of me sitting in the office of his brother-in-law, who also runs a merchant cash-advance company. Someone had snapped it surreptitiously. “You went to my drug-addicted, alcoholic brother-in-law, and I don’t know what his issue is with me, but he made up a whole bunch of stuff,” Braun said. The brother-in-law denied the substance-abuse claims but said he didn’t want to say more, because his mother would be mad.

Braun did acknowledge working for a business that does consulting for cash-advance companies, but he wouldn’t say which ones. He said he didn’t file prejudgment attachment cases in Connecticut, and he denied cheating anyone, ever. “I definitely do not break the law whatsoever,” Braun said. “I go out of my way to not be involved in any shenanigans at all.”

Despite the devastation Braun’s borrowers allege he’s caused them, the court system rarely holds him back. More often, it helps him collect his debts. The contracts the borrowers sign are filled with so much punitive fine print that they allow him to do pretty much anything he wants. Even in a 2018 case, in which a judge ruled that Braun’s company had defrauded a plumber, the penalty was simply to pay the money back.

The federal prosecutors in Brooklyn who handled Braun’s drug-trafficking case declined to comment on whether they’ve looked into his loans. A criminal investigation by the New York City Police Department before Braun’s prison sentence went nowhere. A detective, Joseph Nicolosi, interviewed others in the cash-advance industry about Braun, even stopping a private jet on the tarmac at a New Jersey airport to talk with his associates, according to some of the people involved. In August 2020, a lawyer, who was representing a different group of Braun’s associates, said at a court hearing in a civil case that a federal prosecutor in Manhattan was planning to file criminal charges based on Nicolosi’s findings. But a year and a half later, no criminal case has materialized, and no one I talked to said they’d heard from authorities since Braun had gotten out of prison. Nicolosi and the Manhattan prosecutor, Louis Pellegrino, declined to comment.

While Braun was in prison, the Federal Trade Commission sued him over his lending practices. He denied any wrongdoing in the case, which is pending. He’s missed deadlines to respond to the New York attorney general’s lawsuit against him, and the state is now seeking a $77 million default judgment. But it might be hard to collect that money from someone who knows all the ins and outs of debt-collection law, especially because the AG can’t resort to the kinds of legal tricks Braun uses. Braun’s associates say he keeps no assets in his name, anyway. If he’s assessed a penalty, he can plead poverty and avoid paying it.

That doesn’t mean he’s broke. He was photographed recently wearing Gucci slippers and what looked to be a Patek Philippe Aquanaut watch, worth about $120,000. He’s building a 20,000-square-foot mansion in Lawrence, N.Y., on Long Island’s south shore. On paper, his wife owns it, but he’s bragged about it to friends. One Otisville inmate remembers Braun spreading out the blueprints on a table in a common room and ostentatiously reviewing the details. Plans filed with the village’s buildings department show that it will have 10 bedrooms, 14 bathrooms, and two elevators, one of them for cars. A rendering depicts a Bentley parked outside.

In July, Braun traveled to Miami for a relative’s wedding. Another guest says they heard him bragging about the money he was making from cash advances. During the toasts, Braun smirked as the best man joked about his time in prison. “I see Itzik from Israel, Mr. Krys from Mexico, Camilo is here from Colombia, but most amazingly, Jon Braun is here all the way from Otisville!” the best man said. “Thank you, President Donald J. Trump.” —With Zachary R. Mider

To contact the author of this story:
Zeke Faux in New York at zfaux@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Chafkin at mchafkin@bloomberg.net

Robert Friedman
Jeremy Keehn

© 2022 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.