Closing arguments are underway Thursday in the Trump Organization tax fraud trial, where defense attorneys blamed the alleged criminal tax schemes on former CFO Allen Weisselberg, who’s already pleaded guilty to 15 counts in the case.
“Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg,” defense attorney Michael van der Veen told jurors Thursday – a mantra defense attorneys have recited throughout the trial.
The crux of the trial against two Trump Organization entities ultimately asks the jury to decide whether Weisselberg and the company controller acted illegally with some intent to benefit the company, defense attorney Susan Necheles told the jurors Thursday morning. She acknowledged the defense team and prosecutors aren’t in dispute over most of the illicit acts alleged in the case, but instead disagree about whether the company is criminally liable for its employees’ crimes.
“Does the evidence prove beyond a reasonable doubt that when Allen Weisselberg cheated on his personal tax returns, and when Jeffrey McConney helped him to do that, that Allen Weisselberg or Jeffrey McConney had some intent to benefit the Trump Corporation,” Necheles said, referring to the Trump Organization’s controller. “You are going to see there was no such intent.”
Getting at a technicality in the statutes at issue in this case, the defense attorney also told the jury they should not consider McConney a “high managerial agent” for the company because he was micromanaged by Weisselberg who really ran the show.
“The purpose of Mr. Weisselberg’s crimes was to benefit Mr. Weisselberg,” Necheles said. “He admitted under oath these crimes were a result of his own greed.”
Two Trump Organization entities are charged with tax fraud and falsifying business records in what prosecutors allege was a 15-year scheme to defraud tax authorities by failing to report and pay taxes on compensation provided to employees.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August for failing to pay taxes on approximately $1.7 million in off-the-books compensation he received in the form of a company-funded apartment in New York City and other expenses.
“He helped grow the Trump Organization into the company that it is today but along the way he messed up. He got greedy,” the defense attorney said. But Weisselberg hid his crimes from the Trump family, she said.
“He knew he was doing something wrong and was ashamed of it and kept it secret,” Necheles said.
Necheles stressed that Donald Trump never knew about Weisselberg’s schemes and trusted the longtime employee so much that the former President named him as a trustee on his Revocable Trust created when he took office.
The defense attorney also noted that Mazars USA, the accounting firm that prepared the organization’s taxes, and its lead accountant Donald Bender never flagged any illicit conduct to the company owners, the Trump family.
Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty to 15 counts in this case and will serve some jail time, is now “atoning for his sins,” Necheles said. The plea deal also required his testimony at trial, she reminded the jury.
“He’s worried that he’s going to be going to Rikers Island,” she said. “He’s worried that he could get far more time if the prosecutors accuse him of lying.”
“The prosecution forced him to testify against the company he helped to build,” Necheles said.
Weisselberg never calculated the monetary benefit the company would garner from his schemes the way he meticulously tracked his own personal taxes, the defense attorneys said.
“He obsessively planned his own personal taxes, figuring out in dishonest and honest ways how to pay the least tax possible,” Necheles said.
Van der Veen spoke on behalf of the Trump Payroll Corporation midday Thursday.
The defense attorney accused prosecutors of levying the charges against the two Trump Organization entities because Weisselberg wasn’t enough. “They wanted something with the Trumps attached to it,” he said.
Van der Veen noted that that prosecutors did not show any corporate tax returns for the company defendants, only personal tax returns for Weisselberg. The trial evidence has proven Weisselberg’s greed but not that of the company, the attorney said.
“It has showed us that Weisselberg is a flawed man with a very human story,” van der Veen said.
The Trumps trusted the longtime employee to take care to avoid situations like the criminal charges at issue in this trial, the defense attorney said.
The Trump Payroll Corporation is a “pass through” entity used to pay Trump employees and always ends with zeroed out balances, van der Veen said. “It has no gain. It never will.”
Van der Veen also noted that any payroll tax savings the company could have conceptually benefited from via Weisselberg’s tax schemes would be minimal in comparison to the company’s massive expenditures, including than $250 million in payroll over eight years.
A prosecutor from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office is expected to give its closing argument later in the day. Judge Juan Merchan has said the jury could get the case next Monday.