World

Trump Organization found guilty of tax fraud scheme

Donald Trump's company, the Trump Organization, has been found guilty of a scheme to defraud tax authorities.

Former U.S. president owns the company but was not charged himself

Donald Trump announces a third run for president at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Nov. 15. His company Trump Organization was found guilty Tuesday of defrauding tax authorities. (Rebecca Blackwell/The Associated Press)

Donald Trump's company was convicted of tax fraud on Tuesday in a case brought by the Manhattan District Attorney, a significant repudiation of financial practices at the former U.S. president's business.

A jury found two corporate entities at the Trump Organization guilty on all 17 counts, including conspiracy charges and falsifying business records.

The guilty verdict came on the second day of deliberations following a trial in which the Trump Organization was accused of being complicit in a scheme by top executives to avoid paying personal income taxes on job perks such as rent-free apartments and luxury cars.

The conviction is a validation for New York prosecutors, who have spent three years investigating the former president and his businesses, though the penalties aren't expected to be severe enough to jeopardize the future of Trump's company.

As punishment, the Trump Organization could be fined up to $1.6 million US — a relatively small amount for a company of its size, though the conviction might make some of its future deals more complicated.

Trump, who recently announced he was running for president again, repeated his assertion following the verdict that the case against his company was part of a politically motivated "witch hunt" waged against him by vindictive Democrats.

Trump Organization's former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg leaves the courtroom in New York, on Nov. 15. (Yuki Iwamura/Reuters)

Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict, Trump Organization lawyer Alan Futerfas vowed to appeal.

The verdict adds to already mounting legal woes for Trump, who faces a criminal investigation in Washington over both the retention of top secret documents at his Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago, and efforts to undo the results of the 2020 presidential election.

Those inquiries are being led by a newly named Justice Department special counsel. The district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, is also leading an investigation into attempts by Trump and his allies to overturn his loss in that state.

Trump Organization attorney Alan Futerfas has vowed to appeal the verdict. (Yuki Iwamura/The Associated Press)

While Trump himself was not charged, the verdict marks yet another setback for the former president, who has faced a series of self-inflicted crises since launching his latest campaign for the White House last month.

That includes anger over his dinner with a Holocaust-denying white nationalist and the antisemitic rapper formerly known as Kanye West and an authoritarian call by Trump for the "termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution" to address his baseless claims of mass election fraud.

The Manhattan district attorney's case against the company was built largely around testimony from the Trump Organization's former finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, who previously pleaded guilty to charges that he manipulated the company's books and his own compensation package to illegally reduce his taxes.

Weisselberg testified in exchange for a promised five-month jail sentence.

'Personal greed'

To convict the Trump Organization, prosecutors had to convince jurors that Weisselberg or his subordinate, senior vice-president and controller Jeffrey McConney, were "high managerial" agents acting on the company's behalf and that the company also benefited from his scheme.

Trump Organization lawyers repeated the mantra "Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg" throughout the month-long trial. They contended the executive had gone rogue and betrayed the company's trust. No one in the Trump family or the company was to blame, they argued.

Though he testified as a prosecution witness, Weisselberg also attempted to take responsibility on the witness stand, saying nobody in the Trump family knew what he was doing.

"It was my own personal greed that led to this," an emotional Weisselberg testified.

Trump Organization lawyers William Brennan and Michael van der Veen return to the Manhattan Criminal Courthouse after a break following the jury deliberations in New York City on Tuesday. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

Trump reacts

In a statement, Trump called the case the "Greatest Political Witch Hunt in the History of our Country" and bemoaned his view that "New York City is a hard place to be Trump," and repeated the company defence team's assertion that Weisselberg acted alone. 

"Why would Corporations, which knew nothing about Weisselberg's personal tax returns, be prosecuted for that person's conduct? There was RELIANCE by us on a then highly respected and expensive accounting firm, and law firm, to do this work," he wrote.

Manhattan prosecutors alleged Trump "knew exactly what was going on" with the scheme, though he and the company's lawyers have denied that.

Weisselberg, who pleaded guilty to dodging taxes on $1.7 million US in fringe benefits, testified that he and McConney conspired to hide that extra compensation from his income by deducting their cost from his pre-tax salary and issuing falsified W-2 forms.

During his closing argument, prosecutor Joshua Steinglass attempted to refute the claim that Trump knew nothing about the scheme. He showed jurors a lease Trump signed for Weisselberg's company-paid apartment and a memo Trump initialled authorizing a pay cut for another executive who got perks.

"Mr. Trump is explicitly sanctioning tax fraud," Steinglass argued.

The verdict doesn't end Trump's battle with Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, a Democrat who took office in January.

Bragg has said that a related investigation of Trump that began under his predecessor, District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., is "active and ongoing."

In that wide-ranging probe, investigators have examined whether Trump misled banks and others about the value of his real estate holdings, golf courses and other assets — allegations at the heart of New York Attorney General Letitia James' pending lawsuit against the former president and his company.

The district attorney's office has also investigated whether any state laws were broken when Trump's allies made payments to two women who claimed to have had sexual affairs with the Republican years ago.

Near the end of his tenure last year, Vance directed deputies to present evidence to a grand jury for a possible indictment of Trump. After taking office, though, Bragg let that grand jury disband so he could give the case a fresh look.

On Monday, he confirmed that a new lead prosecutor had been brought on to handle that investigation, signaling again that it was still active.

With files from CBC News

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