Trump's Longtime CFO Pleads Guilty in New York Tax Fraud Case

  • In World
  • 2022-08-18 16:32:47Z
  • By Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Longtime Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg pleaded guilty to tax fraud charges, the latest blow to former President Donald Trump in a fraught few weeks that have seen fresh legal peril emerge from several directions.

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Weisselberg, 75, entered his plea Thursday in state court in Manhattan, admitting he participated in a yearslong scheme to avoid taxes by paying certain workers with unreported perks like housing and cars. The executive, who worked for the Trump family real estate business for four decades beginning under the former president's father, pleaded guilty to all 15 counts in his indictment.

Trump hasn't been charged in the case and Weisselberg didn't implicate his boss as part of his plea. But because the CFO's deal requires him to testify against his employer, an admission of criminal conduct could mean trouble for the Trump Organization, experts say.

The company is facing the same charges as Weisselberg. Both pleaded not guilty in July 2021 to the tax scheme, of which the CFO was the biggest beneficiary. Weisselberg was given a rent-free luxury apartment on the Upper West Side, Mercedes cars for him and his wife and private-school tuition for his grandchildren that were allegedly counted as part of his $940,000 salary. Weisselberg admitted in court that he received about $1.76 million in unreported income.

Weisselberg, who arrived in court Thursday wearing a face mask and dressed in a dark suit and cornflower blue tie, agreed to testify against the Trump Organization as part of his plea deal. He also agreed to pay nearly $2 million in back taxes, penalties and interest.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan read the entire 15-count indictment, repeatedly asking Weisselberg if he'd committed each of the charges. "Yes your honor," Weisselberg answered quietly each time.

"Today Allen Weisselberg admitted in Court that he used his position at the Trump Organization to bilk taxpayers and enrich himself," Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement, adding, "This plea agreement directly implicates the Trump Organization in a wide range of criminal activity and requires Weisselberg to provide invaluable testimony in the upcoming trial against the corporation."

The Trump Organization said in a statement Thursday that it had done "nothing wrong" and looked forward to going to trial. The company called Weisselberg "a fine and honorable man" and said he made his decision to plead guilty after years of being "harassed, persecuted and threatened by law enforcement, particularly the Manhattan District Attorney, in their never ending, politically motivated quest to get President Trump."

Weisselberg had faced the possibility of years in prison if convicted at trial. Under the plea deal, he may do considerably less than the agreed-upon five months with good behavior. The company faces fines if convicted in the criminal case.

"In one of the most difficult decisions of his life, Mr. Weisselberg decided to enter a plea of guilty today to put an end to this case and the years-long legal and personal nightmares it has caused for him and his family," defense lawyer Nicholas Gravante said in a statement. "Rather than risk the possibility of 15 years in prison, he has agreed to serve 100 days. We are glad to have this behind him."

Weisselberg's plea will make it easier to convict the Trump Organization, legal experts said.

"A corporation in New York can be criminally liable when a high managerial agent engages in or recklessly tolerates criminal conduct when acting on behalf of the corporation," said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School and former federal prosecutor. As CFO, Weisselberg definitely meets the bar for "high managerial agent" and "the plea allocution essentially locks in his testimony," she added.

'Big Win'

Failing to testify truthfully would void the plea agreement. Merchan said in court that Weisselberg's sentence is conditional on his completion of his end of the deal.

The agreement is "a big win" for prosecutors at the Manhattan district attorney's office, according to Bennett Gershman, a professor at New York's Pace University Law School.

"Given his position in the company, it would be a proper use of the admissions that he's made in court about his conduct and his role in the company," Gershman said. "Those admissions could be used to show the company is engaging in fraud, because he's admitting fraud, and he's committing fraud on behalf of the company in terms of his conduct as a CFO."

In court, Weisselberg named another Trump Organization employee with whom he conspired in the scheme, controller Jeff McConney. Like Weisselberg, McConney has been with the company for decades and worked closely with the CFO on financial matters. The controller reportedly testified before the New York grand jury which investigated the case under a grant of immunity. McConney's lawyer Patricia Pileggi didn't immediately return a call seeking comment about Weisselberg's statements in court.

FBI Search

Merchan had set an Oct. 24 trial date for Weisselberg and the Trump Organization. If the company proceeds to trial, it could be defending the case during the mid-term elections.

The guilty plea comes on the heels of a series of hearings by the congressional Jan. 6 committee, which presented new evidence concerning Trump's actions ahead of the Capitol riot, as well as his inaction during the insurrection. Several of the witnesses who testified before the panel have since been subpoenaed by federal prosecutors.

And it comes a little over a week after Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida was subject to a search by FBI agents, who seized 11 sets of classified documents that were apparently removed from the White House. According to the search warrant, investigators were searching for evidence of violations of the Espionage Act and other laws governing the handling of materials relevant to national security.

Just days after the Aug. 8 search, Trump sat for a deposition in an investigation of his company by New York Attorney General Letitia James. The former president pleaded his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in declining to answer almost all of her questions.

Though his refusal to answer can't be used against him in a criminal case, it could hurt him in a potential civil case brought by James, who's investigating whether the Trump Organization manipulated asset values to obtain tax benefits or more favorable loans. A civil jury is allowed to draw a negative inference from a person's decision to plead the Fifth.

Harsh Penalties

While it's still unclear if James intends to pursue a civil case against the Trump Organization, that potentially poses a greater danger to the company than the criminal case, in which her office is also cooperating. New York law allows the attorney general to seek harsh penalties against companies that are found to have a pattern of illegal conduct.

Theoretically, she could dissolve a company over such violations, though a court would need to approve such a draconian penalty.

Trump has sought to stall almost all of the investigations against him, arguing while he was president that he had immunity from the Manhattan district attorney's probe, forcing prosecutors to take the case all the way to the US Supreme Court. The high court in 2020 rejected Trump's argument and ordered his accountants to turn over his and his company's financial records to prosecutors.

Since leaving office, Trump has continued to contend that all the probes of his conduct are politically motivated. Though these arguments have not proven successful in court, they have been widely echoed by Republican politicians and other Trump supporters.

The case is People v. Trump Organization, 01473-2021, New York State Supreme Court (Manhattan).

(Updates with statement by the Trump Organization in eighth paragraph.)

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