For years, as Donald Trump rocketed from reality stardom to the White House, his real estate empire financed lavish perks for some of his top brass.
Now Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, is on trial for criminal tax fraud — on the hook for what prosecutors say was a 15-year scheme by his most trusted lieutenant to avoid paying taxes on those extra benefits.
The landmark trial in New York began in earnest on Monday with prosecutors alleging the company fraudulently evaded taxes by paying a key executive $1.76 million in perks such as a free apartment, a leased Mercedes and tuition for his grandchildren.
The case could result in the Trump Organization’s 500 business entities being showered with criminal convictions that will make it difficult for the former president’s business to operate. It could also be fined up to $1 million.
“This case is about greed and deception — tax evasion,” prosecutor Susan Hofiger said during opening statements as the Manhattan District Attorney’s office began building its case. The court will hear from key former executive and prosecution witness Allen Weiselberg, the former chief financial officer at the Trump Organization, who has already separately pleaded guilty to 15 counts of tax fraud.
Hoffinger said the evidence will show that Weisselberg’s fraud involved the Trump Companies, the Trump Organization and the Trump Payroll Corp. From 2005 to 2017, “when most of the criminal activity occurred,” the prosecutor noted, these companies “were owned by Donald Trump.” .
“We all know that companies are not human – they cannot think or act on their own,” Hoffinger argued. But even after Trump was sworn in as president in 2017 and the companies placed in trust, he said, “were still essentially owned by Donald Trump.” Only then did the companies “finally have to clean up these fraudulent tax practices.”
But the organization’s defense attorneys argued that responsibility for Weiselberg’s tax fraud rests solely with him. Trump Organization attorney Susan Necheles told jurors that the fraud scheme began with Weisselberg “and ended with Allen Weisselberg.”
“So when the prosecutor said that the Trump Organization did something illegal for Allen Weiselberg, what they really meant was that Allen Weiselberg did something illegal,” Neteles said. “The evidence will show that the prosecutors’ whole theory of the case makes no sense.”
Michael van der Veen, a personal injury attorney representing Trump Payroll, was part of Trump’s defense during his historic second impeachment for sedition on January 6, 2021, at the US Capitol, when extremist supporters sought to overthrow the certification of his loss by Joe Biden. . On Monday van der Veen claimed that Weisselberg had betrayed the Trump companies.
“Everybody trusted him, they trusted him to protect this company,” van der Veen said. “He was like family to the Trump family and no employee was more trusted than him, but he made mistakes.”
The case, one of three Trump-related hearings before state judges in three New York courts this week, is the first related to the former president’s businesses to go to trial since he left office.
A separate civil case, which names Trump, his three older children and the Trump Organization in a sweeping indictment alleging “substantial fraudulent and illegal business activity,” was brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Weisselberg, who agreed to testify only as part of his plea agreement, is not officially a cooperating witness.
Judge Juan Manuel Merchan predicts the trial will last four weeks. A hearing is expected in the pending civil fraud trial brought by the attorney general and, in another case, jury selection has begun in a civil case brought by protesters who say they were assaulted by security guards outside Trump Tower.
Separately, Trump filed a petition in the US Supreme Court on Monday to block Congress from accessing his elusive tax returns.
The Associated Press contributed to the report