NEW YORK — While Donald Trump rose from reality TV stardom to the White House for years, his real estate empire funded big perks for some of his top executives, including apartments and luxury cars.
Now Trump’s company, the Trump Organization, is on trial for criminal tax fraud — on the hook for what prosecutors say, a 15-year plan by his most trusted lieutenant to avoid paying taxes on those perks.
In opening statements Monday, prosecutors and defense attorneys squabbled over the company’s guilt in the actions of Allen Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty and agreed to testify as the prosecution’s key witness in exchange for a five-month prison sentence.
Later, another Trump Organization executive, senior vice president and controller Jeffrey McConney, went through financial records with a prosecutor, including Weisselberg’s payroll forms and ledger entries showing that the company paid for Weisselberg’s rental cars. He will continue his testimony on Tuesday.
McConney, who prosecutors say helped Weisselberg by misreporting his income to tax authorities, was granted immunity to testify before a grand jury and testify again at the criminal trial last year. He said he appeared before the grand jury eight times on a variety of Trump-related matters.
The tax fraud case is the only criminal case to emerge from the Manhattan District Attorney’s three-year investigation into the former president, and is one of three active cases involving Trump or the company in New York courts.
Prosecutor Susan Hoffinger argued in her opening statement that the Trump Organization – through its subsidiaries Trump Corp. and Trump Payroll Corp. – is liable because Weisselberg, the company’s longtime chief financial officer, was a “high management agent” hired to act on behalf of the Trump Organization and its various entities.
The company, she said, benefited because it didn’t have to pay Weisselberg and at least two other executives, who received as much salary and bonuses — which totaled nearly $1 million a year for Weisselberg.
The company also saved money on holiday bonuses by paying top executives as independent contractors through subsidiaries like its golf courses and the Central Park ice rink it manages, Hoffinger said.
“This case is about greed and fraud – tax evasion,” Hoffinger told the jury. “(The Trump Organization) paid their already highly paid executives even more by helping them cheat taxes.”
A Trump Organization lawyer, Michael van der Veen, countered that Weisselberg had gone rogue and betrayed the company’s trust. Weisselberg hatched the plan without Trump or the Trump family’s trust, cheated on his personal income taxes and lied to the company about his actions, van der Veen said.
“This case is about individual, personal greed and the abuse of trust it takes to feed that greed. Allen Weisselberg is a man who has become addicted to this greed,” said van der Veen.
“Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg,” he said.
Weisselberg has pleaded guilty to accepting $1.7 million in damages. His Manhattan apartment, Mercedes-Benz cars for him and his wife, and his grandchildren’s school fees were all paid for by the company. His son and another Trump Organization executive also received unofficial compensation, prosecutors said.
When they say the Trump company, “what they really mean is that Allen Weisselberg did something illegal with intent to benefit Allen Weisselberg, his buddy or his son,” another company attorney, Susan Necheles, told jurors .
If convicted, the Trump Organization could be fined more than $1 million and struggle to secure new loans and business. Some partners and government agencies may try to cut ties with the company. It could also affect its ability to do business with the US Secret Service, which sometimes pays the company for housing and services while protecting Trump as a former president.
Neither Trump nor his children, who served as Trump Organization executives, have been charged or accused of any wrongdoing. Trump signed some of the checks at the center of the case, but Necheles said evidence would show he knew nothing about the scheme.
The Trump Organization is the entity through which Trump manages his many ventures, including his investments in golf courses, luxury towers and other real estate, his many marketing deals, and his television activities.
Prosecutors have said they will subpoena 15 witnesses, including Weisselberg, McConney and other Trump Organization officials. Judge Juan Manuel Merchan said he expects the trial to last at least four weeks.
Aside from the criminal case, Trump and the Trump Organization are defendants in a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James alleging that Trump and the company inflated his net worth by billions of dollars and misled banks and others about the value of various assets for years.
A hearing in the case is scheduled for Thursday.
In the Bronx, jury selection was due to begin Monday in a lawsuit by protesters who say they were beaten by security guards outside Trump Tower. The former president testified in this case last year.
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