Trump Organization companies face jury selection in Manhattan criminal tax fraud trial – USA TODAY

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NEW YORK – Former President Donald Trump’s world, which has been hit with impeachments, a sweeping civil lawsuit, and several federal investigations, is about to grapple with a new legal challenge – a criminal trial of his namesake business.

Barring any late settlement with New York City prosecutors, jury selection in the Manhattan District Attorney’s case against the Trump Organization is scheduled to start on Monday.

Trump himself is not charged.

Instead, a 2021 state court indictment accuses two subsidiaries companies that do business under the Trump Organization name in a fraud scheme that paid untaxed, off-the-books payments to Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s longtime top financial lieutenant, and others from 2005 to mid-2021.

“This is the first time there’s been a criminal case about Donald Trump’s dealings during his life before the presidency,” said Andrew Weissmann, a former federal prosecutor who helped lead the investigation into the 2001 collapse of Enron, the Houston-based energy and commodities giant. “It’s lifting up the curtain a bit about his business operations.”

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The Virgil guiding the way through this world in expected testimony for prosecutors is Allen Weisselberg, the former chief financial officer who started working for the Trump family in 1973 and arguably became Trump’s most trusted non-family confidante.

Originally charged with the companies, he pleaded guilty in August to 15 criminal counts as part of an agreement with prosecutors. The deal requires him to testify at the upcoming trial if subpoenaed as a witness. That handed Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg’s prosecution team a potentially powerful trial boost.

Weisselberg had faced a maximum 15-year prison term. But the agreement means he’ll be incarcerated for roughly 100 days, defense attorney Nicholas Gravante said in a statement after the plea was entered in court. Weisselberg will be sentenced after the upcoming trial concludes.

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Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg pleads guilty to tax fraud

The plea deal requires Allen Weisselberg to testify about the tax scheme if called as a government witness at the trial of the Trump Organization.

Patrick Colson-Price, USA TODAY

He admitted the financial perks he received from the Trump companies included payments for luxury vehicles, rent, utilities and garage expenses for an apartment on Manhattan’s West Side, and private school tuition payments for Weisselberg’s grandchildren.

In all, the indictment alleged that Weisselberg received $1.76 million in “off-the-books” compensation, secretly sparing him from thousands of dollars in federal, state and city taxes.

The Trump companies have pleaded not guilty. As a result, defense lawyers face the legal dilemma of responding to Weisselberg’s likely testimony supporting the charges against the firms – without tarring the former chief financial officer.

Plea deal: Allen Weisselberg, Trump Organization CFO, pleads guilty in tax case.

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The statement the company issued after Weisselberg’s guilty plea appeared to offer a potential clue. The statement accused Manhattan prosecutors of fruitlessly attempting to pressure Weisselberg “to say bad things or make up lies about President Trump.” It also called Weisselberg “a fine and honorable man.”

Weissmann suggested the defense could argue that Weisselberg pleaded guilty not because he truly is guilty, but instead to put the allegations behind him with minimal incarceration time.

However, Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Manuel Merchan, while accepting Weisselberg’s guilty pleas, asked him if each of the criminal allegations were true. In a quiet voice, Weisselberg acknowledged that they were.

“If he lies during the trial, then his plea deal is off the table,” said Weissmann. “He can’t back off his guilty plea, or else he’ll do a lot more (prison) time.”

The defense team signaled other potential trial arguments during a brief news conference with reporters after the indictment was unsealed last year. 

“The law on compensation is murky,” said attorney Alan Futerfas, suggesting that expert witnesses would highlight discrepancies. Futerfas also referred to the tuition payments for Weisselberg’s grandchildren, which he argued “every expert on the planet will tell you is a gift.”

However, the judge said during a pre-trial hearing that he would not allow another line of argument the defense team aired after the indictment – contentions that the case against Trump’s business was politically motivated.

In order to win a conviction against the Trump companies in a New York state case, prosecutors must show that at least one individual committed a crime, and that the crime was committed to benefit the companies. Weissmann said Weisselberg’s guilty plea appeared to give prosecutors options to meet the requirement.

If faced with such a potentially risky case, many large companies “normally would settle, and not go to trial,” said Weissmann. However, the Trump Organization issued a statement after Weisselberg’s guily plea that said the companies would not plead guilty because they had done nothing wrong.

That’s a risk. There’s potentially “a huge reputational hit if a company loses in a case like this,” said Weissmann.

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