Trump Organization’s US tax fraud trial begins

Prosecutors say former President Donald Trump’s company handed out large perks to executives in a tax avoidance scheme.

Donald Trump
Former United States President Donald Trump, shown here at a political rally in June, has faced a string of legal challenges and investigations [File: Kate Munsch/Reuters]

For years, as Donald Trump was soaring from reality TV star to the White House, his real estate empire was bankrolling big perks for some of his most trusted senior executives, including apartments and luxury cars.

Now Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, is on trial for criminal tax fraud — on the hook for what prosecutors say was a 15-year scheme by top officials to avoid paying taxes on those fringe benefits.

In opening statements on Monday, prosecutors and defence lawyers sparred over the company’s culpability.

Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger argued the company is liable because the officials were “high managerial agents”, entrusted to act on behalf of the company and its various entities, and that the company benefitted because it didn’t have to pay them as much in actual salary.

“This case is about greed and cheating — cheating on taxes,” Hoffinger said in a 40-minute opening statement. “[The Trump Organization] paid their already highly paid executives even more by helping them cheat on taxes.”

A company lawyer, Susan Necheles, countered that the company was being unfairly blamed for the actions of an executive — longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg — who had essentially gone rogue and was now cooperating with prosecutors to save himself.

Weisselberg, a major beneficiary of the scheme whose apartment, cars and grandchildren’s school tuition were paid by the company, pleaded guilty and has agreed to testify against the company in exchange for a five-month jail sentence.

Weisselberg’s son and another Trump Organization executive were also accused of getting off-the-books compensation.

“It started with Allen Weisselberg and ended with Allen Weisselberg,” Necheles said in her opening statement.

When they say the Trump company, “what they really mean is Allen Weisselberg did something illegal with the intent to benefit Allen Weisselberg, his buddy or his son”, she added.

Last week, 12 jurors and six alternates were picked for the case, but one alternate was dismissed on Monday. The tax fraud case is the only criminal trial to arise from the Manhattan district attorney’s three-year investigation of the former president.

It’s one of three active cases involving Trump or the Trump Organization in New York courts.

If convicted, the Trump Organization could be fined more than $1m and could face difficulty in securing new loans and deals. Some partners and government entities could seek to cut ties with the company.

It could also hamper its ability to do business with the US Secret Service, which sometimes pays the company for lodging and services while protecting Trump as a former president.

Neither Trump nor any of his children who have worked as Trump Organization executives are charged or accused of wrongdoing. Trump is not expected to testify or even attend the trial.

Prosecutors have said they do not need to prove Trump knew about the scheme to get a conviction and that the case is “not about Donald Trump”. But a defence lawyer, William J Brennan, said even if he’s not physically there, Trump is “ever present, like the mist in the room”.

That’s because Trump is synonymous with the Trump Organization, the entity through which he manages his many ventures, including his investments in golf courses, luxury towers and other real estate, his many marketing deals and his TV pursuits.

Trump signed some of the cheques at the centre of the case. His name is on memos and other company documents. Witnesses could testify about conversations they had with Trump. They are even expected to enter Trump’s personal general ledgers as evidence.

Weisselberg, who has pleaded guilty to taking $1.7m in off-the-books compensation, pinned blame on himself and other top Trump Organization executives, including the company’s senior vice president and controller, Jeffrey McConney.

Prosecutors have said they expect to call 15 witnesses, including Weisselberg and McConney, who was granted limited immunity to testify last year before a grand jury.

Judge Juan Manuel Merchan expects the trial to take at least four weeks.

Beyond the criminal case, Trump and the Trump Organization are defendants in a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James, who alleges that Trump and the company inflated his net worth by billions of dollars and misled banks and others for years about the value of various assets.

A hearing in that case is scheduled for Thursday.

Meanwhile, in the Bronx, jury selection was scheduled to begin on Monday in a lawsuit brought by protesters who say they were roughed up by security guards outside Trump Tower. The former president gave a deposition in that case last year.

Source: The Associated Press