NEW YORK – Defense lawyers for two of former President Donald Trump’s companies and Manhattan prosecutors are scheduled to make closing arguments Thursday as a criminal tax fraud trial involving the companies winds toward a close.
Summing up just over a month of trial testimony and evidence, the opposing legal teams will try to convince the eight-man, four-woman jury that what they heard and saw justifies either a conviction or acquittal.
A guilty finding could hit the companies with up to an estimated $1.6 million in criminal penalties and tar the reputation of Trump’s namesake firms with a criminal conviction.
The case arises from a July 2021 indictment that accused longtime Trump financial lieutenant Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Corporation and the Trump Payroll Corporation of participating in a more than decade-long tax fraud scheme that benefited top executives while producing financial benefits for the companies. Weisselberg is no longer CFO of the Trump Organization, though he is still employed by the Trump business empire.
The alleged crimes included untaxed perks that enabled Weisselberg and other top Trump executives to get company-paid Manhattan apartments and luxury cars, which they did not report as income. They also received thousands of dollars in tax-free payments.
Trump was not charged in the case, and did not appear in court during the trial. However, he criticized the prosecution in a Thanksgiving week posting on Truth Social. The end of the trial comes just weeks after Trump announced he is running for president again in 2024 and amid a flurry of other recent developments in civil and criminal matters involving Trump.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August to all 15 charges against him as part of an agreement with prosecutors. He admitted he concealed $1.76 million in income through the alleged scheme. The deal is expected to enable Weisselberg to serve roughly 100 days in jail, far less than the maximum 15-year prison term he could have faced.
That made Weisselberg the trial’s focal point. He was the star witness for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. And he was the chief target of attack for the Trump companies’ legal teams.
Weisselberg, 75, helped both sides score points.
Still receiving his six-figure salary on a paid leave from the Trump Organization, he testified under cross-examination by defense lawyers that he’d acted out of his own greed, seeking pre-tax dollars. The defense characterized his conduct as a Weisselberg plot that was hidden from the companies.
In one of the trial’s most dramatic moments, defense lawyer Alan Futerfas noted that Weisselberg had worked for the Trump family for nearly 50 years, becoming the most trusted person in the organization who lacked the Trump surname.
“Mr. Weisselberg, did you honor the trust that was placed in you?” asked Futerfas.
Weisselberg admitted he had not.
“And you did it for your own personal gain?” asked the defense lawyer.
“I did,” said Weisselberg, who appeared to fight back tears.
However, during direct examination by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, Weisselberg acknowledged that the companies had received some benefit from the alleged tax scheme.
Reducing his salary to cover some tax-free perks paid by the company benefited him – but also produced lower payroll costs, as well as savings in the Medicare portion of payroll taxes that are paid by employers, Weisselberg testified.
A New York state law that defines when corporations are deemed to have committed crimes is central to the case. Part of the law says corporations may be liable if the alleged criminal conduct was “engaged in … by a high managerial agent acting within the scope of his employment and in behalf of the corporation.”
Both sides re-debated the meaning of “in benefit of” during a Tuesday conference about the legal instructions that Acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan is scheduled to deliver to the jury on Monday.
During that session, without jurors present, the trial judge noted that a defense team review of archived state legislative material appeared to leave the precise meaning unclear.
Merchan ultimately gave something to both sides. He said prosecutors would need to show jurors there had been “some intent to benefit” the corporations. But defense attorneys “can’t overstate what that intent was,” added Merchan.
The jury will also have to decide other issues. For example, Weisselberg pleaded guilty to a scheme to defraud. But who was his co-schemer?
That could be Jeffrey McConney, the Trump Organization controller, whose testimony also gave both sides some of what they wanted. Testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution, McConney admitted he knew the tax-ducking tactics he carried out were illegal.
However, McConney also testified that he simply followed instructions from Weisselberg, who was his boss, and said he didn’t alert other company officials.
The legal teams also battled during the trial over what blame for the alleged crimes, if any, should be assigned to Mazars, an international audit, tax and advisory firm that previously held the lucrative account for the dozens of Trump businesses.
Defense lawyers pointed to language in the Mazars engagement letter that seemed to indicate the company would flag potential illegal conduct. Prosecutors cited other written language that said the Trump companies were responsible for providing accurate financial information to Mazars.
Donald Bender, a Mazars partner formerly in charge of the Trump account, testified that the company didn’t spot some of the alleged tax-evasion tactics. He said he had been fooled by Weisselberg, whom he had known for many years.
He testified that he was sure he’d never seen Trump Corporation spreadsheets that showed how the company gave Weisselberg and other top executives extra payments by distributing the funds as if the recipients were independent contractors.
“Because I probably would have had a heart attack,” said Bender.
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Story Credit: usatoday.com