NEW YORK – The criminal tax fraud trial of two companies in former President Donald Trump’s business empire neared a close Thursday after defense lawyers attacked Allen Weisselberg, Trump’s former top financial lieutenant, and a prosecutor told the jury the firms “cultivated a culture of fraud and deception.”
In clashing closing arguments, the two sides focused on whether there was sufficient evidence that Weisselberg intended to provide some benefit to the Trump Corporation and Trump Payroll Corporation as he evaded taxes in a long-running scheme.
That question of intent, required for convictions of the companies under New York law, is expected to be at the heart of the jury deliberations that are scheduled to start on Monday.
Echoing the opening defense statements just over a month ago, Susan Necheles, the attorney for the Trump Corporation, told the jurors: “We are here today for one reason and one reason only – the greed of Allen Weisselberg.”
No one from the Trump family knew about Weisselberg’s “effort to evade taxes,” an alleged scheme in which he acted “solely to benefit himself,” said Necheles.
She also told the eight-man, four-woman jury to focus on legal instructions they will receive about a section of the New York state penal law that outlines the circumstances needed to find a corporation guilty of committing a crime.
The law requires prosecutors to prove through evidence at trial that Weisseberg, – Trump’s former chief financial officer – committed tax fraud crimes while acting within the scope of his job and “on behalf of the corporation.”
What does that mean?
“It requires the people to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the high-ranking officer acted with some intent to benefit the corporation,” said Necheles. “You are going to see there was no such intent. The purpose of Mr. Weisselberg’s crimes was to benefit himself.”
Necheles was followed by Michael van der Veen, an attorney for the Trump Payroll Corporation, the other company on trial. He, too, attacked the prosecution’s star witness, loudly declaring: “Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg.”
It’s not enough for prosecutors to show that the disgraced executive cheated on his taxes by failing to declare off-the-books company perks as income and getting an unmerited paycheck from Trump’s firm for his wife so she could qualify for Social Security benefits, van der Veen told jurors.
The government also must show an intent to provide some benefits for the Trump firms “and the evidence is there is no intention of benefits for the Trump Payroll Corporation,” said van der Veen.
Joshua Steingglass, a Manhattan assistant district attorney, delivered a contrasting argument as he began the prosecution’s closing arguments. He told the jurors that a “tremendous amount of evidence” introduced during the trial showed Weisselberg “intended to benefit the companies, and that is enough” to justify criminal convictions.
“It was a win-win,” getting cash into executives’ pockets and keeping costs low, said Steinglass.
A guilty verdict could hit the companies with up to an estimated $1.6 million in criminal penalties and tarnished the reputation of Trump’s namesake firms with a criminal conviction.
The case arose from a July 2021 indictment that accused Weisselberg of participating in a more than decade-long tax fraud scheme that benefited top executives while producing financial benefits for the companies. Weisselberg is no longer CFO of the Trump Organization, even though he is employed by the Trump business empire.
The alleged crimes included untaxed perks that enabled Weisselberg and other top Trump executives to get company-paid Manhattan apartments and luxury cars, which they did not report as income. They also received thousands of dollars in tax-free payments.
Trump was not charged in the case, and did not appear in court during the trial. However, he criticized the prosecution in a Thanksgiving week posting on Truth Social. The ending phase of the trial comes just weeks after Trump announced he is running for president again in 2024 and amid a flurry of other recent developments in civil and criminal matters involving Trump.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August to all 15 charges against him as part of an agreement with prosecutors. He admitted he concealed $1.76 million in income through the alleged scheme. The deal is expected to enable Weisselberg to serve roughly 100 days in jail, far less than the maximum 15-year prison term he could have faced.
That made Weisselberg the trial’s focal point. He was the star witness for the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. And he was the chief target of attack for the Trump companies’ legal teams.
Weisselberg, 75, helped both sides score points.
Still receiving his six-figure salary on a paid leave from the Trump Organization, he was tested under cross-examination by defense lawyers that he acted out of his own greed, seeking pre-tax dollars. The defense characterized his conduct as a Weisselberg plot that was hidden from the companies.
In one of the trial’s most dramatic moments, defense lawyer Alan Futerfas noted that Weisselberg had worked for the Trump family for nearly 50 years, becoming the most trusted person in the organization who lacked the Trump surname.
“Mr. Weisselberg, did you honor the trust that was placed in you?” asked Futerfas.
Weisselberg admitted he had not.
“And you did it for your own personal gain?” asked the defense lawyer.
“I did,” said Weisselberg, who appeared to fight back tears.
However, during direct examination by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, Weisselberg acknowledged that the companies had received some benefits from the alleged tax scheme.
Reducing his salary to cover some of the tax-free perks paid by the company benefited him – but also produced lower payroll costs, as well as savings in the Medicare portion of payroll taxes that are paid by employers, Weisselberg testified.
The jury will also have to decide other issues. For example, Weisselberg pleaded guilty to a scheme to defraud. But who was his co-schemer?
He is Jeffrey McConney, the Trump Organization controller, whose testimony also gave both sides some of what they wanted. Testifying under a grant of immunity from prosecution, McConney admitted he knew the tax-ducking tactics he carried out were illegal.
However, McConney also tested that he simply followed instructions from Weisselberg, who was his boss.
“Who was I going to tell?” McConney tested, adding that he feared losing his job if he spoke out.
The legal teams also battled during the trial over what blame for the alleged crimes, if any, should be assigned to Mazars, an international audit, tax and advisory firm that previously held the lucrative account for the dozens of Trump businesses.
Defense lawyers pointed to language in the Mazars engagement letter that seemed to indicate the company would flag potential illegal conduct. Prosecutors cited other written language that said the Trump companies were responsible for providing accurate financial information to Mazars.
Donald Bender, a Mazars partner formerly in charge of the Trump account, tested that the company didn’t spot some of the alleged tax-evasion tactics. He said he had been fooled by Weisselberg, whom he had known for many years.
However, Necheles reminded the jurors Thursday that evidence of the apartment, cars and other property Weisselberg received without paying taxes was “right in Mazars’ face … all in the general ledger” of the Trump Corporation.
Arguing that Bender failed the Trumps, Necheles said Bender neglected to look too closely because Weisselberg signed the Mazars engagement letter with the Trump companies and directed the payments.
“How could President Trump or Eric Trump” who ran the family business when his father was in the White House, “know that something was wrong unless Donald Bender told them?” asked Necheles.
But Bender tested during the trial that he was sure he’d never seen Trump Corporation spreadsheets that showed how the company gave Weisselberg and other top executives untaxed extra payments by distributing the funds as if the recipients were independent contractors.
“Because I probably would have had a heart attack,” said Bender.
►Trump’s latest legal challenges?:Special counsel, new suit over alleged assault and more
►E. Jean Carroll:Trump faces new lawsuit alleging battery
►Breach of trust:Ex-Trump Organization CFO Weisselberg holds back tears as he tests