Jurors began their deliberations Thursday in the trial of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who prosecutors say earned $60 million advising Russia-backed politicians in Ukraine, hid much of it from the IRS, then lied to banks to get loans when the money dried up.
Manafort’s defense countered that he wasn’t culpable because he left the particulars of his finances to others.
The financial fraud trial calls on the dozen jurors to follow the complexities of foreign bank accounts and shell companies, loan regulations and tax rules. It exposed details about the lavish lifestyle of the onetime political insider, including a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich leather and $900,000 spent at a boutique retailer in New York paid via international wire transfer.
It’s the first courtroom test of the ongoing Russia probe led by special counsel Robert Mueller. While allegations of collusion are still being investigated, evidence of bank fraud and tax evasion unearthed during the probe has cast doubt on the integrity of Trump’s closest advisers during the campaign.
Peter Carr, spokesman for the special counsel’s office, declined to comment.
“When you follow the trail of Mr. Manafort’s money, it is littered with lies,” prosecutor Greg Andres said in his final argument, asking the jury to convict Manafort of 18 felony counts.
In his defense, Manafort’s attorneys told jurors to question the entirety of the prosecution’s case as they sought to tarnish the credibility of Manafort’s longtime protege — and government witness — Rick Gates.
Defense attorney Richard Westling noted that Manafort employed a team of accountants, bookkeepers and tax preparers, a fact he said showed his client wasn’t trying to hide anything. Westling also painted the prosecution’s case as consisting of cherry-picked evidence that doesn’t show jurors the full picture.
“None of the banks involved reported Manafort’s activities as suspicious,” he said, saying Manafort’s dealings only drew scrutiny when Mueller’s investigators started asking questions.
Westling questioned whether prosecutors had proven Manafort willfully violated the law, pointing to documents and emails that the defense lawyer said may well show numerical errors or sloppy bookkeeping or even false information on Manafort’s tax returns but no overt fraud.
During the prosecution’s arguments, jurors took notes as Manafort primarily directed his gaze at a computer screen where documents were shown. The screen showed emails written by Manafort that contained some of the most damning evidence that he was aware of the fraud and not simply a victim of underlings who managed his financial affairs.
Andres highlighted one email in which he said Manafort sent an inflated statement of his income to bank officers reviewing a loan application. He highlighted another in which Manafort acknowledged his control of one of more than 30 holding companies in Cyprus that prosecutors say he used to funnel the more than $60 million he earned advising politicians in Ukraine.
Manafort chose not to testify or call any witnesses in his defense. His lawyers have tried to blame their client's financial mistakes on Gates, calling him a liar and philanderer.
Gates, who struck a plea deal with prosecutors, told jurors he helped conceal millions of dollars in foreign income and submitted fake mortgage and tax documents. He was also forced to admit embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort and having an extramarital affair.
Andres said the government isn’t asking jurors to like Gates or take everything he said at “face value.” He said the testimony of other witnesses and the hundreds of documents are enough to convict Manafort on tax evasion and bank fraud charges.
“Does the fact that Mr. Gates had an affair 10 years ago make Mr. Manafort any less guilty?” Andres asked, noting that Manafort didn’t choose a “Boy Scout” to aid a criminal scheme.
The government says Manafort hid at least $16 million in income from the IRS between 2010 and 2014. Referring to charts compiled by an IRS accounting specialist, Andres told jurors that Manafort declared only some of his foreign income on his federal income tax returns and repeatedly failed to disclose millions of dollars that streamed into the U.S. to pay for luxury items, services and property.
Manafort attorney Kevin Downing told jurors that the government was so desperate to make a case against Manafort that it gave a sweetheart plea deal to Gates, and he would say whatever was necessary so it would not recommend he serve jail time.
“Mr. Gates, how he was able to get the deal he got, I have no idea,” Downing said.
Several times during their arguments, Downing and Westling referred to the prosecution as the “office of special counsel” and suggested that Manafort was the victim of selective prosecution, an argument the judge had specifically ruled they couldn’t make.
The move drew a quick objection outside the presence of the jurors by Andres. In response, Ellis attempted to repair any improper prejudice created by the defense attorneys, instructing jurors to put aside any argument about the government’s motive in bringing the case.
Leaving the courthouse, Downing said he felt “very good” about Manafort’s chances of being acquitted.
“Mr. Manafort was very happy with how things went today,” Downing said.