New York prosecutors set the table for the criminal tax fraud trial against the Trump Organization Monday, telling jurors the case is about “greed and cheating.”
Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger laid out an alleged 15-year scheme within the Trump Org. to pay high-level executives in perks like luxury cars and apartments without paying taxes on them.
Two Trump Organization entities are charged with nine counts of tax fraud, grand larceny and falsifying business records in what prosecutors allege was a 15-year scheme to defraud tax authorities by failing to report and pay taxes on compensation provided to employees.
The scheme, according to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, was orchestrated by the company’s long-time Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, the top executive handling the books of the company. Prosecutors allege the companies benefited from the scheme by paying less taxes on the employee salaries while keeping their longtime employees happy.
“At the end of the day, keeping the trusted CFO happy by paying him more without him being taxed on that income, that was also a benefit to these companies,” Hoffinger said during her opening statement.
The jury will see portions of former President Donald Trump’s personal ledger and the checks he signed from his personal account to pay school tuition for Weisselberg’s grandchildren for years, the prosecutor said.
Trump is not a defendant in the case and is not expected to be implicated in any wrongdoing, but the charges against the real estate business he built from the ground up are the closest any prosecutor has gotten to Trump, and the political ramifications of the case has irritated the former president, people familiar with the matter say.
“Donald Trump didn’t know that Allen Weisselberg was cheating on Allen Weisselberg’s personal tax returns. The evidence will be crystal clear on that,” defense attorney Susan Necheles said.
She also cautioned the jurors to leave their political views out of their deliberations.
“You must not consider this case to be a referendum on President Trump or his policies. That type of thing has no place in our criminal justice system,” Necheles said.
The defense team for both Trump companies told the jury that the indictment alleges fraud on personal tax forms of Trump Org. employees, distancing the companies from Weisselberg’s admitted fraudulent behavior.
If convicted, the Trump Org. would face maximum fines of $1.6 million – the most allowed under New York state law for the charged conduct. The company would not be dissolved or face any other consequences.
Defense attorneys pinned the entire criminal case on Weisselberg, the prosecution’s star witness who took a plea deal, pleading guilty to 15 counts in exchange for a lenient prison sentence.
Weisselberg, who is required to testify at trial as a condition of the plea deal, will say whatever he needs to, feeling the pressure of potentially losing his luxurious lifestyle, according to Necheles.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August for failing to pay taxes on $1.7 million in off-the-books compensation he received in the form of a company-funded apartment in New York City. Over the past several weeks Weisselberg has met with Manhattan prosecutors and lawyers for the Trump Organization to prepare for his testimony.
He’s expected to serve a prison sentence of five months or less as a result of the plea deal, Necheles said.
“It started with Allen Weisselberg and it ended with Allen Weisselberg,” Necheles said. “Allen Weisselberg caused the company to do something illegal with the intent to benefit Allen Weisselberg, his buddy or his son.”
Necheles also said the Trump Corporation relied on tax experts who never informed top executives at the company that executives were doing anything improper in not reporting “fringe benefits” on their tax forms.
Weisselberg, who’s worked for the Trump family for nearly 50 years, has not been cast out from the fold despite his crimes, according to defense attorney Michael van der Veen. Weisselberg is still being paid by the company though he’s been placed on a leave of absence.
“He was trusted by everyone. He was trusted to protect this company. He was trusted to run the accounting department properly. He was given an enormous amount of independent autonomy to conduct his job. He was trusted to keep his own personal affairs in order,” van der Veen said.
The trial day got off to a late start thanks to a no-show juror who was ultimately discharged. The juror who was dismissed was an alternate so they went from six alternates to five.
Senior Trump Organization Vice President and Controller Jeffrey McConney took the stand as the prosecution’s first witness. Judge Juan Merchan denied a prosecution request to treat McConney as an adverse witness.
McConney testified that he’d been granted immunity to testify at trial because his own actions as controller are intertwined in the allegations. McConney did not cooperate or meet with prosecutors prior to testifying but has met with defense counsel as recently as Sunday, he said.
Judge Merchan also denied a request from the prosecution to prohibit McConney from speaking to the defense lawyers in between his testimony in court.
Prosecutors admitted over 100 Trump Org. financial documents into evidence including general ledgers of Trump Org. transactions over a defense objection. McConney walked through the format of the ledgers itemizing years of transactions and explained the payroll process for Trump Org. – a function he no longer oversees.
McConney is expected to continue testifying Tuesday morning.