Andrea Bernstein, Ilya Marritz, Brian Mann |
NPRTuesday, December 6, 2022
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole on Aug. 06 in Dallas, Texas.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
A jury in Manhattan has found former President Donald Trump's company guilty of a long-running criminal tax fraud scheme that lasted into his presidency.
Though Trump and his company have repeatedly faced criminal investigations, this case marks the first time his company has been charged, tried, and convicted on criminal charges.
Trump built his political brand, in large part, on his claim that he was an aggressive and successful businessman.
In all, the jury found two entities controlled by Trump guilty on 17 counts of criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records. The maximum penalty is $1.6 million.
"This was a case about lying and cheating, false documents to the aid of evading taxes for the benefit of individuals and the corporation," Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg said, speaking with reporters after the verdict was delivered.
In a statement, the Trump Organization criticized the verdict and promised to appeal, arguing that blame should fall on the company's executives and not on the firm itself.
"The notion that a company could be held responsible for an employees' actions, to benefit themselves, on their own personal tax returns is simply preposterous," the statement read.
An attorney for the Trump corporation also sought to distance the former president from the outcome.
"Every witness repeatedly testified that President Trump and the Trump family knew nothing about Allen Weisselberg's actions," Susan Necheles said in a statement.
Prosecutors had previously secured a guilty plea last summer from by Trump's former longtime chief financial Officer Allen Weisselberg, who became the star witness for the prosecution in the case.
But Weisselberg's co-defendants, two Trump business entities, remained under indictment.
On Halloween, prosecutors made their opening arguments in the trial of the Trump Corporation (which encompasses most of his business empire) and the Trump Payroll Corporation (which processes payments to staff), arguing that the case was about "greed and cheating."
Trump Corporation attorney Susan Necheles told jurors in her opening statement that the trial is not a referendum on Trump, and asked them to keep an open mind.
Both sides emphasized that Trump was not a defendant, yet the former president's name came up frequently.
Some of the most attention-grabbing evidence presented to the jury were documents with Trump's signature: a rental agreement for a luxury apartment used by Weisselberg, a private school tuition check written for a grandchild of Weisselberg's. Weisselberg admitted he did not declare these benefits as income, as required by law.
In his summation, assistant district attorney Joshua Steinglass pointed a rhetorical finger directly at Trump, saying Trump sanctioned tax fraud. The defense vigorously objected, and the objection was sustained by the judge.
During the course of the trial, outside the four walls of the courtroom, Trump declared he was running for president, and frequently lambasted Manhattan District Attorney Bragg on social media.
Weisselberg previously pleaded guilty to 15 felony tax charges. He admitted hiding the part of his salary that was paid through untaxed benefits like a luxury apartment, Mercedes-Benz leases for him and his wife, and private school tuition for his grandchildren.
The compensation was never reported to New York State or to the IRS.
As part of his plea deal, Weisselberg agreed to testify truthfully and to serve five months in jail.
During his testimony, which laid out the details of his criminal tax fraud, Weisselberg acknowledged that he still receives a $640,000 salary from the Trump Organization – though he has been placed on leave – and of hopes to receive an end-of year bonus.
At issue in this trial was whether Weisselberg and another top executive, Trump Organization comptroller Jeffrey McConney acted "in behalf of" the corporate entities when they compensated Weisselberg and other top executives by paying for the apartments and luxury benefits that did not get reported to the tax authorities.
In his instructions to jurors, before they reached a verdict, Judge Juan Merchan said that did not mean Trump's company benefited from the scheme, although there was evidence that it did.
Weisselberg acknowledged knowing taxes were owed on that compensation, but it was never reported.
Prosecutors argued that by compensating top executives in this fashion, the Trump Organization was able to save significant amounts of money.
This trial unfolded at a moment of complex legal peril for Trump and his business, with his attorneys playing defense in recent weeks in three different New York City courtrooms.
Last month, a judge required Trump's firm to submit to an outside monitor as part of an on-going $250 million civil case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
James' lawsuit claims Trump and his children fraudulently manipulated the value of its real estate holdings for more than a decade, deceiving lenders and and cheating tax authorities.
James reacted to Tuesday's verdict with a statement. "We can have no tolerance for individuals or organizations that violate our laws to line their pockets," she said.
"I was proud to assist in this important case. This verdict sends a clear message that no one, and no organization, is above our laws."
Trump and his attorneys have pushed back, arguing that prosecutors in New York have overstepped their authority and engaged in a a political witch hunt against the former President.
Trump also faces federal probes involving his role in efforts to block the peaceful transfer of power after he lost the 2020 presidential election and his decision to keep classified documents after leaving the White House.
Last month, the U.S. Justice Department appointed a special counsel to oversee those investigations. Trump has also described that process as politically motivated.
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