Mon, Dec 5, 2022 6:36 PM
By MICHAEL R. SISAK, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s one ballot former President Donald Trump would rather not be associated with: the verdict sheet at his company’s criminal tax fraud trial.
Deliberations are set to spill into a second day Tuesday as jurors weigh charges that the Trump Organization helped executives dodge personal income taxes on perks such as Manhattan apartments and luxury cars.
The case went to the jury Monday following a monthlong trial featuring testimony from seven witnesses, including the company’s longtime finance chief Allen Weisselberg and Senior Vice President and Controller Jeffrey McConney.
Jurors deliberated for about four hours on Monday and returned to the courtroom with a question just once as they sought to clarify one of the charges.
Here’s a look at what jurors are considering and what’s next for the Manhattan district attorney’s Trump investigation.
Prosecutors charged the Trump Organization in July 2021, seeking to hold the company accountable for the actions of some of its most loyal, longest-serving executives.
Weisselberg, charged in the same indictment, subsequently pleaded guilty to evading taxes on $1.7 million in company-paid perks. He testified at the company’s trial that he conspired with McConney in the scheme, in part by adjusting payroll records to deduct the cost of company-paid extras from his salary.
Weisselberg, a Trump Organization employee since 1986, said the arrangement reduced his tax bill while also saving the company money because it didn’t have to give him a hefty raise to cover the cost of the perks and additional income taxes he would have incurred.
Other executives were also accused of avoiding taxes on company perks, but no one else was charged.
Jurors are being asked to decide if Weisselberg was a “high managerial agent” acting on the company’s behalf when he hatched his tax dodge scheme, as prosecutors allege, or if he was acting in his own interest, as Trump Organization lawyers contend.
They must also determine if he intended to benefit the company’s bottom line, not just his own.
Technically speaking, it’s not the Trump Organization, but two subsidiary entities that are charged. They are: the Trump Corporation, which handles executive management functions for Trump’s real estate empire; and Trump Payroll Corporation, through which it pays employees, cuts bonus checks and prepares W2 tax forms.
The charges include criminal tax fraud, falsifying business records and conspiracy. The Trump Corporation is charged with nine counts. The Trump Payroll Corporation is charged with eight. Each entity has its own defense team.
About 40 minutes into deliberations, jurors sent a note asking the judge to reread the elements of one of the charges, conspiracy to defraud in the fourth degree.
Trump Organization lawyers, repeating the mantra “Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg,” argued that the executive went rogue and betrayed the company’s trust. They say any benefit to the company from his scheme was ancillary, minimal and unintentional. The defense also suggested longtime company accountant Donald Bender should've caught the fraud.
Weisselberg testified that neither Trump nor Trump’s family had any knowledge of what he was doing, a win for the defense. But prosecutor Joshua Steinglass attempted to refute the claim in his closing argument, arguing that evidence showed Trump “knew exactly what was going on.”
Steinglass showed jurors a lease Trump signed for Weisselberg’s company-paid apartment and a memo Trump initialed authorizing a pay cut for another executive who got perks, saying they illustrated that Trump was "explicitly sanctioning tax fraud.”
Before deliberations, Judge Juan Manuel Merchan reminded jurors of their vow to set aside any personal feelings they may have about Trump and his politics.
“Mr. Trump and his family are not on trial here before you,” the judge advised. “Although you heard numerous references (to Trump), they were permitted solely to allow you to assess witness credibility and to allow the people and the defendants to advance their arguments.”
If convicted, the Trump Organization could be fined up to $1.6 million. Beyond the official punishment, a conviction could make it more difficult for the company to secure loans and make deals.
Both sides presented relatively sparse cases revolving around just a few key witnesses backed by reams of paper evidence, including spreadsheets, tax forms and checks stubs. In all, seven people testified — five for the prosecution and two for the defense. Those distinctions didn’t always stick.
Weisselberg and McConney, both prosecution witnesses, helped the defense at times. Bender, who spent years preparing tax returns for Trump and his businesses, was called by the defense but occasionally helped the prosecution.
Prosecutors led off with McConney, who spent parts of five days on the witness stand. He tested positive for COVID-19 on the trial’s second day, delaying the trial for more than a week. After he showed a more favorable demeanor to defense lawyers, prosecutors won permission to treat him as a hostile witness.
Deborah Tarasoff, the accounts payable supervisor, was next. Then came Weisselberg, who testified as the prosecution’s star witness in exchange for a promised five-month jail sentence.
Prosecutors also called a forensic accountant for the Manhattan district attorney’s office and an auditor for the state tax agency.
The defense rested after calling just two witnesses: Bender, whom company lawyers sought to discredit and treat as a hostile witness, and a paralegal who appeared briefly to verify tax information referenced in a 2013 email that Weisselberg sent to Bender.
FUTURE OF INVESTIGATION
Trump himself is not on trial, but Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg sent his strongest signal yet Monday that he’s seriously looking at whether to charge the former president after saying for months that the probe is “active and ongoing.”
Bragg announced he’s putting Matthew Colangelo, who led Trump-related investigations at the New York attorney general’s office, in charge of sensitive and high-profile white-collar investigations such as the Trump probe.
The Trump Organization case is the only trial to arise from the three-year investigation. No former president has ever been charged with a crime.