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Trump spared fraud trial over his university before election
[LOS ANGELES] Donald Trump won't have to go on trial over allegations his namesake university cheated students at the same time he's running for president of the US.
A federal judge in San Diego on Friday ordered that the jury trial on behalf of thousands of former Trump University students will start 20 days after the Nov 8 presidential election.
The former students from in California, Florida and New York accuse Mr Trump and his now-defunct, for-profit school of making empty promises, including that they would be taught Mr Trump's investing secrets, to get them pay as much as US$35,000 for "elite" real-estate seminars.
The allegations include violations of state consumer protection and elder abuse laws because many of the students were senior citizens.
A lawyer for Mr Trump argued at a March hearing that it would be difficult to pick an impartial jury in the middle of the real estate developer's bid for the presidency and that a trial would be a "zoo".
Mr Trump's Republican rivals seized on the school's legal woes as they sought to derail his march to the party's nomination. He became the presumptive nominee this week after his last two rivals dropped out.
Mr Trump and the university face a second class-action in San Diego by former students, alleging racketeering, as well as a fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat.
Delaying the California trial until after the election is "definitely good news for Trump," said Gabriel Lenz, an associate professor of political science at University of California at Berkeley whose research focuses on voter preferences.
"I think that one of the reasons why he did better than many people expected is because there was never really a coordinated attack against him," he said.
Mr Trump's opponents' offensives were short-lived and tended to switch focus day to day, Mr Lenz said.
"A trial would have definitely kept a negative attack going for a while."
In setting the trial date, US District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel said he was concerned about "opening a Pandora's Box" of problems if Mr Trump were to be elected president and the trial held next year as Mr Trump's lawyers requested. The judge also said he's seriously concerned about the massive attention he anticipates the trial generating.
"I'm thinking of my jury," he said. "Will they be able to stay clear of the media frenzy that will occur and will we be able to insulate them from events that may occur outside the courthouse?"
The judge made several references to demonstrations and protests that have arisen out of the Trump campaign.
"I want to ensure that we have a fair trial for both parties that is based on the facts of the case and the law," the judge said.
Mr Trump's lead attorney, Daniel Petrocelli, sought to schedule the trial for February, which he said would allow Mr Trump, if elected, to get through his inauguration and selection of his transition team.
He said scheduling the trial in July or August - as requested by the plaintiffs - would be "an unwanted intrusion on the election process."
"Mr Trump must devote all of his time and energy to running for the office," said Mr Petrocelli.
"If Mr Trump is unsuccessful in November he will have plenty of time on his hands afterward." Mr Trump's preference is to attend most, if not all of the trial, Mr Petrocelli told the judge.
Mr Curiel said both sides have agreed on a questionnaire to be used to screen jurors before jury selection and that there will be "an eight or nine person jury" hearing the case.
The judge also said he was disappointed the two sides hadn't resolved many of the pre-trial issues and streamlined the case. The attorneys told him that the trial will probably last about four weeks.
In urging the judge to pick an earlier trial date, plaintiffs' attorney Jason Forge said the case is six years old and "justice delayed is justice denied".
"These are real people who spent significant amounts of money at Trump University and deserve their day in court," he said.
The judge in the New York case last month ordered that case to trial but hasn't set a date. Mr Trump has requested a jury trial.
A New York appeals court in March reinstated a fraud claim against Mr Trump University, allowing Mr Schneiderman to seek monetary penalties if he wins the case, including restitution for the alleged victims and disgorgement of profits.
Mr Trump is seeking permission to challenge that decision before the state's highest court in Albany. A decision on whether that court will hear the case may come in months.
The case is Makaeff v Trump University LLC, 10-cv-00940, US District Court, Southern District of California (San Diego).