Trump Organization, chief financial officer indicted on tax fraud charges
Marks 1st criminal case resulting from 2-year investigation by Manhattan District Attorney's Office
Donald Trump's company and its longtime finance chief were charged Thursday in what a prosecutor called a "sweeping and audacious" tax fraud scheme that saw the Trump executive allegedly receive more than $1.7 million US in off-the-books compensation, including apartment rent, car payments and school tuition.
It is the first criminal case that has resulted from a two-year investigation into the former president by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. Trump himself was not charged, but prosecutors noted that he signed some of the compensation cheques at the centre of the alleged scheme.
According to the indictment, from 2005 through this year, the Trump Organization and chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg cheated the state and city out of taxes by conspiring to pay senior executives, Weisselberg included, off the books, by way of lucrative fringe benefits and other means.
Both Weisselberg and lawyers for the Trump Organization pleaded not guilty. Weisselberg was ordered to surrender his passport and was released without bail, leaving the courthouse without comment.
The 73-year-old Weisselberg has intimate knowledge of the Trump Organization's financial dealings from nearly five decades at the company. The charges against him could give prosecutors the means to pressure him to co-operate with the investigation and tell them what he knows.
Trump calls case 'witch hunt'
In a statement, Trump branded the case a "political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats." Weisselberg's lawyers said he will "fight these charges."
The case is being led by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and New York Attorney General Letitia James, both Democrats.
Vance, who leaves office at the end of the year, has been conducting a wide-ranging investigation into a variety of matters involving Trump and the Trump Organization, such as hush-money payments made to women on Trump's behalf and whether the company manipulated the value of its properties to obtain loans or reduce its tax bills.
The news comes as Trump has been more seriously discussing a possible comeback run for president in 2024. He has ramped up his public appearances, including holding his first rallies since leaving the White House.
In announcing the grand jury indictment, Carey Dunne, the top prosecutor in the district attorney's office, said; "Politics has no role in the jury chamber, and I can assure you it had no role here."
He outlined a 15-year scheme "orchestrated by the most senior executives" at the Trump Organization.
Trump's adult sons in charge
The Trump Organization is the entity through which the former president manages his many entrepreneurial affairs, including his investments in office towers, hotels and golf courses, his many marketing deals and his television pursuits. Trump's eldest sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, have been in charge of the company's day-to-day operations since he became president.
Weisselberg came under scrutiny in part because of questions about his son's use of a Trump apartment at little or no cost.
Barry Weisselberg — who managed a Trump-operated ice rink in Central Park — paid no reported rent while living in a Trump-owned apartment in 2018. He was charged just $1,000 US per month — far below typical Manhattan prices — while living in a Trump apartment from 2005 to 2012, the indictment said.
WATCH | Weisselberg took federal immunity deal in 2018:
Allen Weisselberg himself, an intensely private man who lived for years in a modest home on Long Island, continued to claim residency there despite living in a company-paid Manhattan apartment, prosecutors said.
By doing so, Weisselberg concealed that he was a New York City resident and avoided paying more than $900,000 in federal, state and city income taxes, instead collecting about $133,000 in refunds to which he was not entitled, prosecutors said.
Company paid for rent, tuition, vehicles
According to the indictment, Weisselberg paid for rent on his Manhattan apartment with company cheques and directed the company to pay for his utility bills and parking.
The company also paid for private school tuition for Weisselberg's grandchildren with cheques bearing Trump's signature, as well as for Mercedes-Benz cars driven by Weisselberg and his wife, and gave him cash to hand out tips around Christmas.
Such perks were listed on internal Trump company documents as part of Weisselberg's employee compensation but were not included on his W-2 forms or otherwise reported, and the company did not withhold taxes on their value, prosecutors said.
Trump's company also issued cheques, at Weisselberg's request, to pay for personal expenses and upgrades to his homes and an apartment used by one of his sons, such as new beds, flat-screen TVs, carpeting and furniture for his Florida residence, prosecutors said.
Barry Weisselberg's ex-wife, Jen Weisselberg, has been co-operating with investigators and handed over reams of tax records and other documents.
Weisselberg has a reputation as a man deeply devoted to Trump's interest.
Two other Trump executives who were not identified by name also received substantial under-the-table compensation, including lodging and the payment of automobile leases, the indictment said.
District attorney fought for tax records
Trump has said his company's actions were standard practice in the business and in no way a crime. The Trump Organization accused the district attorney's office of using Weisselberg as a "a pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president."
Vance fought a long battle to get Trump's tax records and has been subpoenaing documents and interviewing company executives and other Trump insiders.
James Repetti, a tax lawyer and professor at Boston College Law School, said a company like the Trump Organization would generally have a responsibility to withhold taxes not just on salary but on other forms of compensation.
Another prominent New York City real estate figure, the late Leona Helmsley, was convicted of tax fraud in a federal case that arose from her company paying to remodel her home without her reporting that as income.
"The IRS routinely looks for abuse of fringe benefits when auditing closely held businesses," Repetti said.