A man removes the word Trump, off a marquee outside the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower in Panama City, Monday, March 5, 2018. Escorted by police officers and a Panamanian judicial official, the owner of the Trump Panama City hotel has taken control of the property. A team of Trump security officials left the property. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
PANAMA CITY (AP) — Trump hotel executives were ousted from their offices in Panama's Trump Hotel on Monday, as Panamanian officials stepped in to resolve a 12-day standoff between Trump's company and the property's owners. Trump's security guards also left the property, and crews immediately began stripping Trump's name from the building.
The action began when a Panamanian judge and armed police officers escorted the head of the hotel's owner association into the Trump-branded 70-story, luxury property on Panama Bay, with Trump's security staff departing soon after. A legal dispute over Trump's management contract at the hotel continues, but Monday's developments indicated Trump had effectively surrendered physical control of the property.
"This was purely a commercial dispute that just spun out of control," said Orestes Fintiklis, a private equity investor and the head of the hotel's owners' association, shortly before entering the hotel management's offices. "And today this dispute has been settled by the authorities and the judges of this country."
A Panamanian judicial official told The Associated Press a statement would come later in the day. The Trump Hotel's website had ceased offering direct bookings at the hotel by early Monday afternoon.
"We apologize," the site said. "There are no available rooms for your requested stay."
The judicial intervention resolved the most contentious part of a 12-day standoff between Trump's hotel business and Fintiklis, who sought to take physical control of the property on behalf of the hotel owners. Though the owners tried to fire Trump's company last year, the Trump Organization had disputed the termination as legally invalid. As part of his fire sale purchase of 202 of the hotel's 369 units, Fintiklis signed a February 2017 agreement not to challenge Trump's management contract — a deal that Trump Organizations consider binding.
Fintiklis quickly changed course after the deal closed in August, arguing that alleged mismanagement by Trump's staff and the deterioration of the Trump brand rendered keeping the property in Trump hands impossible. In late December, Trump's management team ran off a team of Marriott hotel executives visiting the property at Fintiklis' invitation.
"Our investment has no future so long as the hotel is managed by an incompetent operator whose brand has been tarnished beyond repair," Orestes wrote to his fellow hotel owners in a January email obtained by the AP.
The most recent and intense feuding began Feb. 22, when the Miami-based Fintiklis came to the property with termination notices for Trump's management team. Trump hotel officials turned away Fintiklis and his entourage, refusing to let Fintiklis check into any of his private equity fund's 202 hotel rooms.
A legal complaint filed by Fintiklis said that, late that same evening, he and others in his party witnessed Trump's management team destroying hotel documents, which Trump officials have denied.
For more than a week, Trump's hotel business staved off efforts by Fintiklis and his allies to gain control of the property, with rival security teams skirmishing over physical control of key infrastructure including the administrative offices and the hotel's closed caption security system, which was housed in the condo association within the same building. Grainy footage of the encounter obtained by the AP shows Trump security officials shoving a representative of the condo owners' association and a brawl in a stairwell between opposing security guards.
Initially invited by Trump's managers, the Panamanian police repeatedly visited the hotel to keep the peace. At least one Trump security official was taken off the property in handcuffs, though a police source told the AP he was not arrested.
Trump officials denounced Fintiklis' efforts to take control of the property as "thug-like, mob-style tactics" and pledged it would not give in to "bullying and the use of force" in a February statement.
Until litigation and arbitration involving the property was concluded, Trump officials said, they had no intention of leaving.
"They have no right to forcibly remove Trump Hotels as manager," the company said.
While Trump staffed up with additional security — stationing guards at the hotel's administrative offices for more than one week — the fight for physical control of the hotel ended quietly with the intervention by Panamanian authorities. Trump security officials exited the property on their own accord, leaving the hotel's administrative office vacant.
The whereabouts of the Trump hotel management team could not be immediately determined, but Fintiklis declared the fight over. A representative of the Trump Organization did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"Today Panama has made us proud," Fintiklis said, adding that he intended to apply for Panamanian citizenship. Though Fintiklis has generally declined to comment on the dispute, he appeared to gloat Monday. Sitting at the piano in the hotel's lobby, surrounded by reporters and news cameras, he played "Accordeon," a Greek song celebrating that country's fight to overthrow a fascist regime.
Within two hours, a man using a hammer and a crowbar began stripping Trump signage from a stone plaque in front of the building.