Panamanian authorities with helmets and guns entered a Trump-branded hotel in Panama City Wednesday morning, marking another escalation in a hostile, nearly week-long showdown between President Trump’s business and a local partner.
At the same time, Panama’s Labor Minister told CNN that officials from his department were checking on a complaint from some hotel staffers who claim they aren’t getting paid.
Labor Minister Luis Ernesto Carles said his agency didn’t have armed officials at the hotel but cited the possibility that other government agencies were inside the luxury property.
CNN has not been able to confirm who the armed officials worked for, but a Labor Ministry spokeswoman says the armed personnel were on site at the hotel for a few hours and left in the afternoon.
As for the labor investigation, it comes days after the hotel’s majority owner warned employees their jobs were at risk if they didn’t listen to him. Miami-based investor Orestes Fintiklis and the Trump Organization have been locked in a legal dispute since late last year, when Fintiklis moved to break ties with the President’s company.
The matter was supposed to be resolved through international arbitration but has since erupted into a physical standoff. In a statement Monday, the President’s company claimed Fintiklis is using “thug-like” tactics.
Late Wednesday, the Labor Ministry organized a meeting between the employees, the Trump Organization and Fintiklis’ group. In it, Ministry spokeswoman Judith Aparicio said Mr. Fintiklis promised the employees they would keep their jobs. She also said their inspectors had confirmed the employees did receive their paychecks.
The showdown between Fintiklis and the staff heated up earlier on Monday, when an attorney for Fintiklis filed a complaint asking local authorities to intervene after the investor claimed that hotel staff blocked him from entering the hotel’s administrative offices last week. Fintiklis was at the hotel to deliver dismissal notices to some employees.
“We are going to formalize this complaint, because we have determined that these employees have broken the law. And due to that, we are asking the Public Ministry, when there is an infringement of someone’s rights, they should immediately start a full and comprehensive investigation,” said Sarai Blaisdell, Fintiklis’ attorney.
The Panamanian Ministry of Public Affairs confirmed to CNN that it’s opening a federal investigation, led by Chief Prosecutor Julio Villareal, in response to Fintiklis’s claim of “usurpation.”
Prosecutors also are actively trying to determine if Fintiklis’ company is the rightful owner of the hotel.
“The lawyer presented us with a series of documents, most of which were copies. The documents don’t allow us to determine with certainty who is the owner of the hotel, and if there has been any kind of change in ownership at all,” Villarreal said.
Fintiklis’s investment company bought 202 of the 369 units, along with the hotel’s amenities, last year from lenders and the original developer.
“This is the issue that the Ministry of Public Affairs will investigate,” Villarreal said. “We plan to reach out to the proper agencies and organizations, to help us determine the rightful owner. Once that’s done, we will look into what has happened at the hotel in order to decide whether or not the lawyer’s claims in the complaint have merit.”
In response to Fintiklis’ complaint, Trump Hotels issued a statement that said Fintiklis’s used “thug-like, mob-style tactics” to “infiltrate and disrupt its [the Trump hotel’s] computer systems and threatening and intimidating any employee of the Hotel that resisted.”
The White House declined to answer questions about whether it or other US government entities have addressed the situation in Panama. A spokesman referred CNN to the Trump Organization.
The investigations are the latest twist in a four-month battle between the Trump Organization, which licensed its brand to the project about 10 years ago, and Fintiklis, who bought the hotel’s amenities and a majority of its units last year.
Fintiklis, who controls the company that owns the hotel, has been trying to remove the Trump brand and terminate a management agreement with Trump because the property has “steadily been losing market share and stands in last place among its peer luxury hotels in all the relevant metrics for success in the hotel industry,” according to a lawsuit Fintiklis’ investment company filed against two of Trump’s companies in January. Fintiklis also claims in the lawsuit that a decline in occupancy “has had and continues to have a direct impact on the hotel’s bottom line.”
“Rather than see the arbitration that he started through to the very end, Mr. Fintiklis recently decided to take matters into his own hands and try and physically – and forcibly – remove Trump from the Hotel as manager, this, in flagrant violation of the provision in the management agreement which provides that there shall be no termination without an arbitrator’s ruling,” said Trump Hotels in a statement.
In a letter to employees on Sunday, Fintiklis said that the Trump Organization has been lying to them.
“You have fallen victims to a horrible lie which is now costing the jobs of some of you,” he wrote.
If Fintiklis is successful in terminating the management contract with the Trump Organization, the property would become the third Trump-branded project to shed the President’s name since he was elected. In June, the owner of Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto reached a deal to end its contract with the Trump Organization. A Trump-brand building in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood struck a similar arrangement in November.
The Trump International Hotel and Tower Panama — a massive 70-story building in the shape of a sail that includes residential units, office space and a casino — has been mired in controversy and struggling for years, according to media reports.
CNN’s Elizabeth Gonzalez and Florencia Trucco contributed to this story.