United States jurors in the Trump Organization’s tax fraud trial have started deliberating after four weeks of testimony and arguments about executive pay practices at Donald Trump’s real estate company that prosecutors say amounted to a years-long criminal scheme.
The former US president’s company was charged in 2021 with paying personal expenses for some executives without reporting the payments as income and compensating them as if they were independent contractors.
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The company’s longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, pleaded guilty and testified for the prosecution. Trump, who last month announced plans to seek the presidency again in 2024, was not charged in the case.
Justice Juan Merchan in New York state court in Manhattan instructed jurors on the law before deliberations began on Monday and reminded them that they had pledged not to let their opinions about Trump influence their verdict.
“Donald Trump and his family are not on trial here before you,” Merchan said. “You must set aside any bias or prejudice you may have in favor of or against Mr Trump and his family.”
But prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said in his closing arguments on Friday that Trump was aware of the scheme. It was part of an effort by the prosecution to counter the defence’s argument that Weisselberg, 75, sought only to benefit himself and hid his wrongdoing from the Trump family.
“This whole narrative that Mr Trump was blissfully ignorant is just not real,” Steinglass told the jury. “He is not on trial here, but that does not mean that you should believe the defence’s narrative that Allen Weisselberg … went rogue.”
Trump, a Republican, has called the charges politically motivated. Alvin Bragg, the current Manhattan district attorney, is a Democrat, as is the district attorney who brought the charges last year, Cyrus Vance.
During approximately four hours of deliberations on Monday, jurors sent one note to the judge requesting clarification on one of the charges. The deliberations will resume on Tuesday.
The Trump Organization, which has pleaded not guilty, faces up to $1.6m in fines if convicted.
Its lawyers have argued that an outside accountant from Mazars USA who prepared tax returns for the company should have caught Weisselberg’s fraud and blown the whistle.
Accountant Donald Bender “turned a blind eye to Allen Weisselberg’s wrongdoing”, defence lawyer Susan Necheles said in her closing arguments on Thursday. “President Trump relied on Mazars. He relied on Donald Bender to be the watchdog.”
Bender, who has been given immunity from prosecution, was the main witness called by the defence.
He testified that he trusted that Weisselberg gave him accurate financial information to include in the company’s tax returns and was under no obligation to investigate further.
Mazars cut ties with the Trump Organization this year.
The case is among a number of legal troubles facing Trump. The Department of Justice is conducting investigations into the former president’s efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and his removal of government documents from the White House after leaving office. He also faces an investigation in Georgia over a push to reverse his election loss in that state.