Politics

3 Takeaways After First Week of Manafort Trial

Explosive testimony from accountants caps tough Day 4 for ex-Trump campaign chairman

A protester is seen Tuesday outside the U.S. District Court in Alexandria where President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is standing trial for tax evasion and bank fraud. (Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The first week of the tax evasion and bank fraud trial of Paul Manafort is in the books after a tough Friday for the former Trump campaign chairman.

Day Four featured explosive testimony from two witnesses: Manafort’s former accountants, Cindy Laporta and Philip Ayliff. Laporta was the first witness to testify under immunity from the prosecution, an indication she would otherwise have been opening herself up to legal trouble.

Manafort is facing 18 counts and a maximum 305-year prison sentence if the Eastern Virginia jury finds him guilty.

Watch: What I Learned From 4 Days Covering the Manafort Trial

Here are the three biggest takeaways from Day Four and what to look forward to as the trial picks up again on Monday:

1. Manafort is backed into what looks like an inescapable corner on tax evasion charges

Prosecutors are just one small step away from providing the jury with overwhelming evidence that Manafort knowingly evaded taxes by stashing money in foreign accounts that he failed to disclose to his accountants. They also provided evidence Friday of two instances when it appeared he and his deputy, Rick Gates, pressured those accountants to improperly classify some payments from the offshore accounts as “loans” instead of income.

“I’m sure they’re going to do belt and suspenders … but it sounds like they’ve pretty much met the elements,” a former federal attorney with experience prosecuting similar tax and fraud cases told Roll Call.

Prosecutors tightened the noose on Manafort for the tax evasion charges Friday during questioning with Ayliff and Laporta.

Laporta delivered especially damning testimony against Manafort and Gates when she indicated that she believed they inappropriately classified money from foreign accounts as “loans” instead of income to avoid paying higher taxes.

“Did you have concerns about representation you received about these foreign loans?” U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye asked Laporta.

“Yes,” she said.

Asonye then asked Laporta whether she believed the transactions were actually foreign loans.

“No,” she said.

Later, Laporta detailed two instances in 2015 where Gates allegedly asked her to reduce Manafort’s taxes by modifying reported “loans.” The “loans,” which the prosecution charges came from foreign companies Manafort himself owned, totaled $2.4 million.

“He was trying to reduce income and therefore, income taxes,” Laporta testified.

Earlier Friday, Ayliff testified that Manafort claimed he had no foreign accounts or interests on each of the annual tax forms that he filled out for Ayliff between 2011 and 2014. Ayliff used those forms to prepare Manafort’s tax returns.

The evidence and testimony Manafort’s accountants provided Friday are hard documentation that the high-powered political consultant claimed to not have any foreign accounts — especially not ones from which he “loaned” himself millions of dollars.

The former Justice Department attorney who spoke to Roll Call expects the prosecution to call a summary witness — a federal agent who gathered facts during the case’s investigation phase — toward the trial’s conclusion to testify about evidence that shows Manafort opened more than 30 accounts in four different countries under his name, including shell companies that sent Manafort and Gates the money that they classified as “loans.”

“All they have left to show — and an agent can do this — is who had authority to make transactions from those foreign accounts,” the former DOJ attorney said.

And if Manafort did indeed open those accounts, that inherently means he knew they existed — and that he failed to report them to his tax preparers.

The defense’s attempt to pin the blame for the foreign shell company scheme on Gates looked more flimsy as the first week of testimony drew to a close.

The defense has claimed that Gates had broad control over Manafort’s vast financial holdings and that Manafort was in the dark about the specifics of how Gates hid his income offshore.

If any of those shell companies wired money directly to vendors to pay for luxury items such as, say, a $15,000 ostrich jacket, Manafort wasn’t aware of it, the defense has argued.

But the very existence of overseas accounts in Manafort’s name would mean he inked his own signature to open them in the first place.

And if he signed those documents to open the foreign accounts, that would mean he knew they existed, the former prosecutor said.

2. The bank fraud picture is coming into clearer focus, too — but the prosecution still has a long way to go

On Thursday, Manafort’s bookkeeper, Heather Washkuhn, offered the most compelling testimony yet that Manafort may have committed bank fraud.

In March 2016, Gates asked Washkuhn — at Manafort’s direction, Washkuhn said — to reclassify $2.6 million in “accrued revenue” as “income” on the financial statements of Manafort’s company DMP International, even though Washkuhn accounted for DMP’s finances on a cash-only, nonaccrual basis. 

The prosecution is alleging that Manafort purposely tried to inflate his reported income in statements he submitted to banks to secure loans to maintain his exorbitant lifestyle. In 2014, his revenue stream from his political consulting work in Ukraine dried up when his main client, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia amid a revolt.

He was bleeding money and sought to pay off his lavish expenses with loaned money, prosecutors have said.

The prosecution picked up Friday right where it had left off on the bank fraud offensive.

Asonye walked jurors through an incident in 2015 when Manafort asked Ayliff to tell potential lenders at UBS bank that one of his properties, on Fifth Avenue in New York City, was for personal use — even though on his taxes he classified it as a property that he rented out.

By listing it as a rental property on his tax forms, Manafort saved thousands of dollars in taxes.

But when applying for a loan at UBS, he wanted to buff up his reported income to demonstrate he had the means to pay it back.

The defense has argued that even if Manafort did direct the effort to inflate his income on his loan applications, it doesn’t prove that he willfully broke the law.

The defense hinted it will deploy a strategy that contends Manafort was oblivious to the fact that abruptly changing accounting recording procedures could implicate him for bank fraud.

It is, they will likely argue, the bank’s job to do its due diligence to verify whether his income was reported properly. And if Manafort was actively trying to circumvent lending laws, he wouldn’t send emails to his accountant and bookkeeper about it.

“Nobody intending to violate the law would leave the evidence around for his accountant to find it,” Manfort’s lead attorney Kevin Downing said in the courtroom Friday.

3. Keep these 23 pieces of key evidence on your radar

After prosecutors appeared to equivocate earlier in the week on whether they would call Gates, who pleaded guilty in February to tax conspiracy, to testify against his former boss, it has become more and more apparent that they will use his testimony to bolster their case against Manafort.

They have “every intention” of calling him as a witness, prosecutor Greg Andres said Thursday.

On the prosecution’s projected evidence list are 23 email exchanges between just Manafort and Gates. Prosecutors will move to admit those exchanges to the record when Gates takes the stand. The emails will provide the jurors a glimpse into the private conversations between Manafort and Gates, the man to whom he entrusted his personal and business finances.

“They probably have hundreds and hundreds of emails,” the former U.S. prosecutor said. “The fact that they only chose 23, those are probably the ones they think are most damaging.”

The contents of those emails — and how Gates interprets them before the court — could save or sink Manafort.

Prosecutors are trying to craft a narrative through the various vendors, bookkeepers, and accountants who have testified that Manafort, through Gates, directed his own illicit transactions.

“It’s kind of leading up to Gates’ testimony that, ‘Yep, this is what he was telling me to do,’” the former U.S. prosecutor said.

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