PANAMA CITY — The Trump International Hotel and Tower here is President Trump’s only hotel property in Latin America. At 70 stories, it is the tallest building in Panama, offers sweeping views of Panama Bay and features five outdoor swimming pools. The rooms come with Trump branded bathrobes, stationery and mouthwash.
But in recent days, guests have witnessed a decidedly less glamorous side of the operation: Yelling and shoving matches involving security personnel and others, the presence of police in Kevlar helmets, and various interventions by Panamanian labor regulators, forensic specialists and a justice of the peace.
The source of the drama? The businessman who recently purchased a majority stake in the hotel wants the Trumps out. And the Trumps, who have a long-term contract to manage the property, are refusing to go.
In a letter marked “Private & Confidential” to the hotel’s other owners, the businessman, Orestes Fintiklis, likened the Trumps to leeches who had attached to the property, “draining our last drops of blood,” according to a copy reviewed by The New York Times. He has also filed legal actions accusing the Trump family business, the Trump Organization, of mismanaging the hotel.
The Trump Organization, in turn, has accused Mr. Fintiklis of using “thug-like, mob-style tactics” in trying to force his way into the hotel’s administrative offices, which prompted the physical and verbal altercations, and of engaging in a “fraudulent scheme” to strip the property of its Trump management and branding. Mr. Fintiklis’s criticisms of the company’s management “are a complete sham and a fraud,” the company said in a court filing.
This past week, Panama’s Public Ministry said it was looking into whether there had been any “punishable conduct” in the dispute — which means that an arm of a foreign government finds itself in the extraordinary position of investigating a business owned by the American president.
Just seven years ago, at the hotel’s grand opening, the president of Panama at the time joined Mr. Trump in extolling the property. Panama City was then awash with international investors and a booming economy, earning it the nickname, “Dubai of Latin America.”
Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief legal officer, said President Trump had no role in the current dispute. “This has absolutely nothing to do with the president of the United States,” he said. “It is purely a commercial dispute,” adding that “It is simply getting more attention, obviously.”
All indications point to business not politics as the source of the tensions, and at any other moment, the Trump Organization and its army of lawyers might have relished this sort of pitched battle.
But the Panamanian misadventure has become the family business’s biggest headache at a time when its founder is in the White House and every move and woe is magnified across the planet. The business is also showing other signs of receding: The Trump Organization last year agreed to buyout deals that removed the Trump name from once-prized properties in New York and Toronto.
With those stresses and strains, the company is reluctant to walk away from the Panama property and possibly invite other partners to challenge their agreements, according to people close to the company who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The Trumps also believe that the law is on their side, according to their lawyers, who argue that their management agreement prevents Mr. Fintiklis from terminating the contract without an arbitrator’s order. The contract to manage the hotel extends through 2031, and the Trumps say they want to stand behind their employees, several of whom Mr. Fintiklis has sought to fire, for the duration of the deal.
The dispute comes as the Trump’s property — like many Panamanian hotels — is struggling.
The hotel lost over $1 million last year, according to the hotel’s confidential financial documents reviewed by The Times, after turning a gross operating profit of more than $800,000 in 2016. (The results are unaudited and may improve somewhat once they are finalized).
Mr. Fintiklis, 39, declined to comment, but he has made several notable — and provocative — appearances at the hotel in recent days. On one evening, following a verbal confrontation with Trump employees, he and his entourage of about a dozen people retired to the lobby and had pizza delivered from a restaurant on the property. Then Mr. Fintiklis played music from “Zorba the Greek” on the lobby’s baby grand piano while his friends sang along.
Born in Cyprus, Mr. Fintiklis served as an officer in the country’s military before studying law at Oxford University. He now lives in South Florida and runs his own investment firm, Ithaca Capital Partners.
“He’s a very smart individual, and he worked with us for 10 years so he’s very well trained,” said Pierre Charalambides, a co-founder of Dolphin Capital Partners, a real estate private equity firm where Mr. Fintiklis previously worked. “This battle with Trump, it fits him perfectly.”
In 2017, Mr. Fintiklis agreed to buy 202 of the hotel’s 369 units for about $25 million, making him the controlling owner of the hotel. The 70-story tower also includes a casino and a separate condominium development, which are not part of the dispute between the Trumps and Mr. Fintiklis.
The Trumps say they blessed the transaction, on the condition that Mr. Fintiklis not interfere with their management of the hotel.
When the purchase was finalized in August, the Trump-Fintiklis partnership initially seemed promising. Mr. Fintiklis hailed the hotel as “an iconic property” and said he looked forward to working with the Trumps.
But soon after closing on the purchase, he tried to remove them.
His campaign began in earnest in October. He arranged for the hotel’s unit owners to meet — the Trumps say he falsely portrayed the session as a “meet and greet” — and it voted to declare the Trumps in default of their management agreement. The dispute soon spilled into the legal system, with Mr. Fintiklis seeking arbitration to remove the Trumps.
The Trumps say that the rapid-fire nature of Mr. Fintiklis’s legal efforts show that he never intended to cooperate, and that he had been planning an attack from the get-go.
“We just want to run the hotel peacefully, and without interference,” said Mr. Garten, the Trump Organization lawyer. “But I look forward to litigating this, and have no doubt we will prevail.”
The president continues to own the company through a trust but has turned over day-to day management to his eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric.
More than a decade ago — long before Mr. Fintiklis came into the picture — the Trumps began their foray into Panama when they teamed up with the developer Roger Khafif and his firm, Newland International Properties, as well as another partner.
Newland signed an agreement with the Trump Organization, which would brand and manage the property. In a 2007 bond offering, Newland said the Trump name would be a boon to the project: “We benefit from the international prestige and name recognition associated with the Trump brand name.”
The project united the Trumps with influential political figures, including Ricardo Martinelli, the president of Panama at the time. “You’re my friend. Great honor,” Mr. Trump said to the president at the grand opening in July 2011.
After his presidency, Mr. Martinelli fled to the United States in 2015 as Panamanian authorities opened an investigation into allegations of corruption and illegal surveillance. He is currently in the Federal Detention Center in Miami, fighting extradition.
During the 2008 financial crisis, the project encountered financial difficulties during the development phase. Newland defaulted on its debt soon after the building opened and later filed for bankruptcy.
When Mr. Fintiklis became majority owner last year, the hotel was struggling, a fact he soon blamed on the Trumps.
Withering in his criticism, he said in one court filing that “abysmal management” of the hotel, along with “material breaches” of its management contract and fiduciary duties, had “dramatically” driven down profits and the condition of the building. “The hotel has been virtually empty,” the filing said, a claim the Trumps dispute.
The Trump Organization declined to reveal the hotel’s occupancy rates, but in a letter to hotel unit owners, the company argued that the hotel “continues to outperform the market by a wide margin,” despite a weakening hotel market in Panama. The Trumps say that Mr. Fintiklis was aware of the hotel’s performance, and the broader hotel market woes, when he signed the deal.
A hotel building boom over the past decade has tripled the number of hotel rooms in the country, according to Armando Rodríguez, president of the Panamanian Hotel Association. During the same period, however, occupancy rates have steadily fallen — to about 47 percent last year from about double that rate in 2008, Mr. Rodríguez said.
Algerd Monstavicius, who bought one of the hotel’s penthouses as an investment in 2007, four years before the building opened, said he had seen revenues from his unit plummet in the past year. He attributes the falloff in part to President Trump’s hard-line stance on immigration and antipathy toward him across much of Latin America.
“The perception is: Trump is anti-Latino,” said Mr. Monstavicius, 78, a retired pathologist living in Incline Village, Nev. “And that’s reflected in the occupancy.”
Lawyers and executives from both sides of the dispute said the Panamanian government, at least so far, appeared to be showing no favoritism in either direction. At various times during the past week, delegations of government investigators and ministry officials, often accompanied by armed security forces, have spilled from the elevators into the hotel’s elegant sky lobby, as perplexed hotel guests looked on.
As if the standoff were not bizarre enough, a number of apparent coincidences embellish the tale even further.
For one, Dolphin Capital Partners, where Mr. Fintiklis worked for 10 years, was founded in 2004 by a pair of investors who once worked at George Soros’s real estate investment arm.
There is no evidence that Mr. Soros, a huge Democratic donor and critic of President Trump, played any role in the turmoil here, or that partisan American politics are a factor in the effort to remove the Trumps. Mr. Charalambides, the Dolphin co-founder, said his firm had no current business connection to Mr. Soros.
In addition, Mr. Fintiklis’s New York lawyers operate out of 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, the financially troubled office tower owned by the family of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.
And Mr. Fintiklis filed the registration papers for his company, Ithaca Capital Partners, in Delaware on Nov. 9, 2016 — the day after President Trump won the election.