Opening arguments began Monday in the high-profile criminal tax fraud case against the Trump Organization, the former president’s family-run company that helped make him a household name.
“This case is about greed and cheating,” prosecutor Susan Hoffinger told jurors in her opening statement on what she alleged was a “clever scheme.”
Two corporations that are a part of the company, Trump Corporation and Trump Payroll Corp., “paid their already highly paid executives even more by cheating on their taxes,” Hoffinger said.
Donald Trump is listed as a possible witness in the New York trial, where prosecutors will argue that the company he ran for decades engaged in a 15-year scheme to compensate top executives “off the books” in order to help them — and the company — avoid paying taxes.
Trump, who has not been charged with any wrongdoing, has blasted the investigation into the company he’s run for decades as a politically motivated “witch hunt.”
Presiding over the case, acting New York Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan, told potential jurors last week that in addition to the former president, his three oldest children — Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka Trump and Eric Trump — could be called as witnesses. All three have held key positions at the company.
Jury selection wrapped up Friday. The panel is made up of four women and eight men, with five alternates for what’s expected to be a monthlong trial.
The star witness for prosecutors will be Allen Weisselberg, the company’s longtime chief financial officer who is currently on paid leave from the Trump Organization. He was indicted alongside the Trump Organization last year after a yearslong investigation into the company’s financial practices by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Weisselberg, 75, pleaded guilty to 15 felony charges in August.
No other individual has been charged in the case.
Referring to Weisselberg, Hoffinger told the jury that “for 35 years he reported directly to Donald Trump.” He had “signatory authority for bank accounts,” she said.
As part of his plea deal, Weisselberg agreed to pay nearly $2 million in taxes, interest and penalties, in addition to testifying “truthfully at the upcoming trial of the Trump Organization.” If he does not do so, prosecutors said he could face a sentence closer to what he originally faced if convicted at trial — 5 to 15 years in prison.
Weisselberg is expected to take the stand next week.
Susan Necheles, an attorney for the Trump company, told jurors Weisselberg was the bad guy in the case, not the Trump Organization.
The “evidence will show it was all about Allen Weisselberg,” Necheles said.
Weisselberg “had a beautiful life at a prestigious company” that came crashing down when he was arrested, Necheles said.
“Allen Weisselberg had everything a man could want and he realized he could lose all of it, so he made a deal. He would plead guilty and cooperate” against the Trump companies, Necheles said. “The only way to get this great deal he must testify. Think about the extreme pressure he is under,” she added, telling jurors he was the one who benefitted from the scheme — not the Trump Organization.
The judge told potential jurors last week that the case involves allegations that the company “devised and operated a long-term scheme to fail to report income on tax forms.”
The felonies that the indictment alleges the company committed include conspiracy, scheming to defraud, criminal tax fraud and falsifying business records.
The indictment says the “scheme was intended to allow certain employees to substantially understate their compensation from the Trump Organization so that they could and did pay federal, state and local taxes in amounts that were significantly less than the amounts that should have been paid.”
The alleged scheme also allowed the company “to evade the payment of payroll taxes that the Trump Organization was required to pay in connection with employee compensation,” the indictment said.
According to prosecutors’ court filings, the biggest beneficiary of the alleged scheme was Weisselberg, who received $1.76 million in “indirect employee compensation” from the company. That included a rent-free apartment, expensive cars, private school tuition for his grandchildren and new furniture.
The Trump Organization faces up to about $1.6 million in penalties if convicted on all counts. A conviction could also hamper the company’s ability to obtain future financing, experts have told NBC News.
The company is facing other legal problems. Jury selection starts Monday in the Bronx — about 10 miles north of Merchan’s Manhattan courtroom — in a civil case brought against Trump, the Trump Organization and his 2016 campaign by a group of protesters who say they were roughed up by the then-candidate’s security guards outside Trump Tower.
They’re seeking unspecified money damages, and the trial will feature videotaped testimony that Trump gave in the case last year. Trump has denied knowing about his guards’ actions ahead of time, but testified that he believed they acted appropriately, according to portions of his testimony that were included in a court filing in April.
The company, Trump and his oldest children were also sued last month by the New York attorney general’s office, alleging they had overstated the company’s financial assets by billions of dollars.
The suit, which Trump has also dismissed as a politically motivated “witch hunt,” seeks to impose about $250 million in penalties and permanently bar Trump and his three oldest children from serving as officers of any New York-based companies.