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Battle rages for control of Trump hotel in Panama

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PANAMA CITY — If you can overlook the intermittently running water, Friday’s four-hour power outage and occasional police presence in the lobby, the Trump hotel in Panama City retains its status as one of the city’s finest.

The hotel remains open for business against a backdrop of service interruptions, bad press and a fight over the Trump Organization’s management contract that ended in fisticuffs and repeated police calls last week.

“This isn’t what you expect from a luxury hotel,” one guest was heard fuming when told that access to running water would not be restored for hours.

The hotel’s lobby is notable mostly for its shortage of guests, compensated for by a generous allotment of reporters and security staff bracing for renewed confrontations after investor Orestes Fintiklis tried to wrest the administrative office back from the Trump Organization last week.

Armed with termination notices for the hotel’s management, he met stiff resistance from Trump lawyers and security — the first skirmish in a battle for physical control of the hotel property.

Unlike the Trump International Hotel in Washington or the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, which draw guests hoping to bask in Donald Trump-style affluence, guests who spoke to The Associated Press seemed less enamored of the Panama City property’s fondness for aggressive branding.

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“I could really do without the Trump Mojito. There are like four or five Trump drinks on the menu,” said Leanne Horning, a tourist from Chicago staying at the hotel because she got a good deal online.

Horning is “adamantly not” a supporter of the U.S. president and said it irked her that instead of ordering standard cocktails, guests had to choose from among the Tropical Trump, Trump Breeze and Trump Rose.

While Trump Meritage and Trump Chardonnay also were available, what was lacking a good chunk of this past week was Trump water, at least when guests turned on the hotel’s faucets.

According to municipal authorities, Trump receptionists, housekeepers and a maintenance man, city workers spent much of last Tuesday and Wednesday repairing a damaged water main at the hotel. Though water was restored late Wednesday, the Trump Organization seized the opportunity to perform some additional maintenance, extending the cutoff into late Thursday.

A helpful worker distributed cases of Trump-branded bottled water to guests.

Fintiklis, who manages the Miami-based private equity fund Ithaca Capital, has alleged financial misconduct by Trump Hotels dating back years and has said Donald Trump’s statements on immigration have destroyed his brand in Latin America. Fintiklis is waging a bitter battle to oust the Trump team from the hotel.

The dispute has left hotel employees not knowing from one day to the next who they should take orders from or whether they will have jobs when the dust settles.

“Many of us came to work at the hotel precisely because of the Trump brand — it meant quality” said one bellhop, who did not want his name used for fear of reprisals. “Now, we don’t know. We just want to work.”

Anibal Herrera, a lawyer for Fintiklis, said that while 10 Trump management employees had been fired — though they refused to leave the property or attend labor hearings — none of the 230 other employees has anything to fear.

Representatives at Trump Hotels dispute the firings’ validity.

Herrera did say that Fintiklis had control of the hotel’s finances and would stop paying bills incurred by the Trump management team.

Under a decade-old agreement with the property’s original developer, Trump Hotels was supposed to manage the property until at least 2031.

As part of a deal to sell 202 of the hotel’s 369 condo units last year, the Trump team attempted to extract an ironclad concession from the buyer, Fintiklis, not to challenge that management contract.

That is precisely what Fintiklis is now doing. Whether the Trump business got a legally binding commitment is a matter of contention.

Trump Hotels maintains that the company will not give in to “mob style tactics” intended to remove it from the property until courts or arbitrators have settled the contractual matter.

“To be clear, Trump Hotels is highly confident that it will prevail in these proceedings,” the company said in a statement released this week.

According to emails sent by Fintiklis to fellow owners of the hotel condo units, his units alone are running a six-figure monthly deficit.

“Our investment has no future so long as the hotel is managed by an incompetent operator whose brand has been tarnished beyond repair,” Fintiklis wrote the owners in January.

During that month, supposedly the peak of Panama’s high season, occupancy ran around 30 percent and hotel unit owners didn’t make enough to cover their maintenance fees, he said.

Donald Trump’s June 2017 financial disclosure shows his company earned a little over $800,000 from the property during the previous 15 months — a paltry amount compared with the payout of between $32 million and $55 million that the company was on track to receive, according to a deal that emerged from the property’s 2013 bankruptcy.

Unlike Trump Hotels’ exit from buildings in Toronto and New York — in which hotel owners and the Trump team negotiated a muted departure and compensation for the Trump Organization — the Panama dispute seems set to end only when Fintiklis or the Trump family business suffers a public defeat.

In the meantime, the stalemate is a source of distress for hotel unit owners and Panama at large.

Algerd Monstavicius, a retired doctor from Nevada who owns a penthouse hotel unit, favors a change in management, citing the troubled Trump brand in Latin America.

“Trump has his name on almost everything from the doors to the toothpaste,” Monstavicius wrote to an Associated Press reporter. “Everything he says and does in respect to immigration will have an impact on my rental income.”

Monstavicius said his condo formerly rented for $1,200 a night, but was recently occupied for three days at a daily rate of $118.

Panamanian authorities are striving to minimize the tumult at the hotel. Labor ministry officials have sought to ensure employees don’t miss paychecks, and Panamanian police are poised to rush in at any sign of trouble.

Tourism officials are seeking to play down the bad publicity.

“This is private issue of administration and management,” said Armando Rodriguez, president of Panama’s association of hotels. “This doesn’t affect Panamanian tourism because the tourism industry is much more than this.”

Robert Eisenmann, a leading Panamanian businessman, also dismissed the significance of the dispute.

“There a lot of luxury hotels here where you can stay without these problems,” he said.

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Spain stands firm with Gibraltar demand as Brexit row erupts -EU guards MUST police border

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SPAIN has reaffirmed its demand for EU border chiefs to police the border between the nation and Gibraltar – as negotiations take place to try to secure a deal in the region.

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White House boosts funding for Covid tests as infections continue to surge

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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration is accelerating investments in Covid-19 testing to combat a fourth wave of infections washing over states and regions with low vaccination rates as those rates stall and some people resist a return to mask mandates, three administration officials said.

The administration will announce Thursday that it is directing $1.6 billion in Covid testing to high-risk settings like prisons and homeless and domestic violence shelters, the officials said. The administration announced a $398 million boost in funding for small rural hospitals last week for testing and reducing infection.

Many Americans are eager to declare an end to the pandemic, spurning masks and vaccinations in some states and regional pockets, but public health experts and federal officials say the country is entering a period much like the beginning of the pandemic, when large-scale testing and tracing are critical.

Testing “is a key pillar of our response,” particularly because some people are holding off on getting vaccinated and many children are ineligible, said Carole Johnson, the White House testing coordinator. “It’s going to be really important, including as we talk to states about their surge teams.”

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chair of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, said Tuesday at a hearing, “Vaccination rates are plateauing, and fatigue is setting in.”

Hospitalizations are up by 35 percent and deaths are up by 26 percent over the last week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even as testing is decreasing. Public health laboratories reported that 86,000 tests were administered in the last week of June, the most recent data available, compared to as many as 205,000 a week during the last wave of Covid, in April. In January, before vaccines were widely available, weekly tests reached 523,000, according to the Association of Public Health Laboratories. That does not include commercial and clinical labs, and Johnson said testing is increasing in surge states.

Scott Becker, chief executive of the laboratories group, said: “It’s a ground war. With the number of cases and hospitalizations going up, you’d expect to see a greater degree of testing.” But “we’ve seen a huge downturn in diagnostic testing across the country.”

The Biden administration is also using billions of dollars approved by Congress to establish regional hubs to manage testing programs in schools and homeless shelters, and it sent $1.7 billion to states to assist in sequencing the evolving virus.

Much of the overall $12 billion will go toward safely reopening schools in the fall. The administration is also pushing for cheaper at-home tests that parents can use to distinguish among the flu, Covid and other respiratory illnesses that public health officials say could be rampant after a year of remote learning.

Some lawmakers want to be more aggressive, especially as the more contagious delta variant spreads and younger children remain ineligible for vaccination. Pilot programs at several schools across the country in the spring proved that it was costly and, in some cases, difficult to test staff members and children in school.

However, if the government were to issue uniform standards to test schoolchildren and contract directly with private companies for low-cost tests that could be regularly performed at home, it could be very effective, said Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Wash., a pediatrician who has been warning for months about the need for a robust testing infrastructure.

“They at least would have the power of mass purchasing power to say here’s what we want, a gazillion tests at $1 each, and the private company knows it will get paid,” Schrier said.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said: “Everybody in public health recognizes that we’re moving into a spot in which we had been at the beginning of the pandemic, where you need adequate testing. We’re going to be testing again, and in much larger numbers.”



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'Beggars belief!' Jeremy Corbyn demands extortionate tax hikes – 'Does he know he lost?!'

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JEREMY CORBYN has dumfounded MPs and policy wonks after demanding a new “super-rich” tax that would make Britain one of the highest-taxed countries in the world.

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