Politics

3 Key Points in Manafort Defense’s Closing Argument

Prosecutors bear the burden of proof in the U.S., Manafort’s lawyers remind jury

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, here in November 2017, faces up to 305 years in prison if the Eastern Virginia jury finds his guilty on all charges. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Paul Manafort’s lawyers presented their final argument Wednesday, defending the former Trump campaign chairman from 18 charges of tax evasion, bank fraud, and bank fraud conspiracy.

Manafort faces up to 305 years in prison if the Eastern Virginia jury finds him guilty on all charges.

Prosecutors bear the burden of proof in the United States, defense attorney Richard Westling reminded jurors. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team, which is prosecuting Manafort, did not reach that evidential threshold, Westling said.

Here are the defense’s three main arguments why:

1. For many of the bank loan charges, prosecutors failed to prove ‘materiality’

Manafort’s lawyers clearly believe the government’s weakest case involves two loans worth $16 million that Manafort negotiated from The Federal Savings Bank in 2016.

On Tuesday, they moved, unsuccessfully, to dismiss all charges. But they focused narrowly on the loans from TFSB, saying the government did not provide evidence that false information Manafort gave the bank on his application was “material” to the bank’s decision to grant him both loans.

Some initial forms may have contained information that inflated Manafort’s income — though Manafort did not intentionally report false income, they argued — but the bank did not base its decision to grant him  loans based on that information, as it was later, to the best of his knowledge, rectified.

Underwriters at TFSB appraised Manafort’s net worth to be roughly $21.3 million at the time the deal closed, and Manafort put up more than enough collateral to cover the cost of default.

“They understood the true circumstances behind Mr. Manafort’s financial position,” Westling said in his closing argument.

The bank’s three-member credit committee unanimously agreed to execute the loans. That decision was “made by bankers … based on real information,” Westling said, adding that the false information previously provided to the bank was “immaterial” to the bank’s final decision.

U.S. Attorney Greg Andres refuted that notion. (The prosecution has also shown evidence that it says proves Manafort intentionally altered his income on his initial applications.)

Multiple witnesses from TFSB testified earlier this week that the false statements “go to the character” of the borrower — in this case, Manafort.

And in the court of law, prosecutor Uzo Asonye argued earlier this week, “materiality” isn’t based on whether a particular bank in a particular negotiation of a loan decided to go forward with a deal in spite of false information.

Materiality is based on an abstract, objective case in which a bank should or should not have moved forward with a deal after it discovered a potential borrower submitted false information.

Watch: What I Saw That You Couldn't See at the Manafort Trial, Week 2

2. The signatures on foreign bank accounts Manafort supposedly controlled — are you sure he penned those?

In addition to the bank fraud counts, prosecutors have also charged Manafort with intentionally falsifying his tax returns and failing to report his foreign bank accounts in order to evade taxes.

From 2010 to 2014, he had signature authority and control over 31 bank accounts in Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and the United Kingdom, prosecutors have alleged through extensive documentary and testimonial evidence.

Some of the forms submitted to open those bank accounts, which belonged to Manafort’s political consulting firms, contain his signature.

But the defense has called into question the authenticity of the signatures on those foreign accounts.

They appear different from his signature on a bank document found during the FBI raid of Manafort’s home last year — a signature the defense has said actually belongs to their client.

Westling said during his closing argument that he does not have an answer for how Manafort’s signature ended up on the foreign bank account documents because the prosecution did not present evidence to explain them.

“Something was going on” with how the foreign account documents were signed, Westling said.

He again reiterated that the burden of indisputable proof lay with the prosecution.

In its rebuttal, the prosecution said Westling’s forged signature theory was a flimsy one meant to distract the jury.

In an email exchange from 2011, Exhibit 199, Manafort’s accountant, Philip Ayliff, asked Manafort if he had any foreign accounts that could be subject to reporting on his tax forms.

Manafort said he did not.

But in an earlier email to Cypriot lawyer Kypros “Dr. K” Chrysostomides, who managed the money in Manafort’s overseas accounts, Manafort referred to them as “my accounts.”

3. Rick Gates, not Manafort, should be the one in the defendant’s chair

As they have done all trial, Manafort’s lawyers hammered home their case that Manafort’s longtime deputy, Rick Gates, controlled Manafort’s vast empire, hid Manafort’s money in the offshore accounts, doctored information on Manafort’s loan applications, and embezzled millions of dollars from his boss.

Gates could recall “off the top of his head” many of the names of the bank accounts the prosecution has tied to Manafort; Gates was the one with real control over them, lead defense attorney Kevin Downing said.

“How foolish he must feel” for trusting Gates, Downing said of his own client in his portion of the closing argument.

Gates’ testimony that Manafort was the mastermind behind the bank fraud, conspiracy, and tax evasion scheme and that he was simply a pawn is totally unreliable, Downing argued.

“To the very end, he lied to you,” Downing told the jury.

He pointed to Gates’ plea deal with the government, under which Mueller’s team will allow him to ask for probation and a lighter sentence in exchange for testifying truthfully against Manafort.

“He’s fabricating it to get his probationary deal,” Downing said.

Andres dismissed the idea that Gates was the mastermind, pointing to an email from Manafort where he dubs Gates his “quarterback” on a loan application.

“Guess who the coach of that team is?” Andres said.

What’s next

Judge T.S. Ellis III issued the court’s final instructions to the jury Wednesday just minutes before the Alexandria, Virginia, courthouse closed for the day, meaning the jury will have to wait until Thursday to begin its deliberation in earnest.

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