The defense team for Paul Manafort made its message to the jury loud and clear in its opening statement Tuesday: Paul Manafort isn’t your man — Rick Gates, his longtime right-hand man, is the culprit.
“We’re primarily here because of one man: that man is Rick Gates,” Thomas Zehnle, one of Manafort’s attorneys, said Tuesday afternoon.
Gates has reached a plea deal with the U.S. prosecutors and is scheduled to testify against Manafort later in the trial. Manafort faces up to 30 years in prison for each of the bank fraud and tax evasion counts against him.
But Manafort’s attorneys, they made it clear Tuesday, will argue that Gates should be the one sitting in Manafort’s seat — that he misled his boss, who they say “did not create” or “come up with” the idea of setting up offshore accounts to to pay for Manafort’s personal and business expenses.
“Manafort did not intentionally mislead” the Internal Revenue Service when he signed tax and bank loan documents that contained false information. Instead, he placed too much trust in Gates.
“U.S. citizens are not prosecuted for mistakes on their tax forms,” Zehnle said. “They’re audited.”
And if the IRS finds that they have made mistakes, they are able to correct those mistakes and hold anyone accountable who committed knowledgeable wrongdoing.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye delivered the opening statement for the prosecution and flatly rejected the notion that Manafort was totally in the dark about his business and personal finances.
Manafort “constantly issued orders” and “directed” the activities of his associates, including Gates, the prosecution alleges.
Manafort had more than 30 bank accounts set up overseas in four different countries, including Cyprus and the U.S., to conceal parts of his income from the Party of Regions in Ukraine, whose leader, Viktor Yanukovych, Manafort helped ascend to the presidency there from 2010 to 2014.
Instead of bringing that money back to the United States or reporting it in his tax forms each year to the IRS, Manafort took out loans from U.S. bankers to pay for his personal luxury items and then directly transferred money to those overseas accounts to pay back the loans. That way, he would avoid income taxes.
Manafort’s list of luxuries is famous: seven homes, including a $200 million estate just miles from the courthouse where Manafort stands trial, a $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in antique rugs.
There is “nothing wrong with being successful or rich in this country,” Asonye said. But Manafort continually “lied” so that he did not have to pay taxes, and then, when his revenue stream dried up after Yanukovych’s collapse in 2014, he “lied” on his bank loan requests about his income, the prosecution alleges.
Earlier Tuesday, the court swore in nine women and seven men from Virginia to decide Manafort’s fate. Four of the jurors are alternates.
Manafort showed up to the courtroom shortly after 9 a.m. lacking his usual tan and wearing a black suit, blue tie, and rimless reading glasses.
Manafort’s trial is the first test in court for the Justice Department team assembled by Special Prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III more than a year ago to probe Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman from March to August 2016, faces 18 criminal counts in the trial in Virginia and an additional 14 in one in Washington later this year.
Prosecutors do not plan to emphasize Manafort’s work on the Trump campaign. Instead, they’ll be presenting evidence that he tried to hide roughly $30 million in assets in overseas accounts.
Manafort reeled in roughly $60 million helping former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych rehabilitate his image in the mid- to late 2000s, Mueller’s team charged in a court filing Monday.
Though Mueller’s team has extracted guilty pleas from Gates and two others on the Trump campaign team, Manafort has maintained his innocence since he was first charged in October.
U.S. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III issued a stern statement Tuesday morning to the prosecution team to pare back its exhibits.
Manafort’s attorneys have complained that much of the evidence prosecutors submitted is not relevant to the case.
The prosecutors originally planned to show 50 exhibits, 400 pages in evidence against Manafort.
“I do not want a data dump,” Ellis said, referring to a practice in which prosecutors submit so much evidence to the record that jurors do not see or hear about it until they are deliberating.
The U.S. attorneys need to “elicit some testimony” about each piece of evidence, Ellis said.
On Monday, just hours before his criminal trial began, Manafort and his lawyers dropped an appeal of a lawsuit against Mueller’s team for straying too far from the original purpose of its mission: to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
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