Manafort Trial Concludes Active First Week


VOA News/Masood Farivar

The first week of Paul Manafort’s trial ended Friday, with prosecutors calling a bevy of witnesses to testify about the former Trump campaign chairman’s alleged financial crimes.

Manafort, 69, is accused of filing false tax returns, failing to disclose foreign bank accounts to U.S. authorities, and obtaining fraudulent bank loans after his earnings dried up from his political consultancy business for pro-Russia politicians.

The trial is the first to arise from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and whether Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Moscow.

Manafort’s former business partner, Rick Gates, who was indicted along with Manafort, has pleaded guilty and has become a cooperating witness. Manafort’s lawyers, through their opening statement and cross-examination of witnesses, sought to pin the blame on Gates.

Here are highlights from the first four days of the trial:

Day 1: The trial started with the selection of a jury of six men and six women pulled from a pool of several dozen randomly summoned citizens. Manafort’s fate rests in their hands.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers then delivered their opening statements to the jury, laying out their sides of the story.

Prosecutor Uzo Asonye said Manafort committed tax and bank fraud, believing «the law did not apply to him.»

Manafort’s lawyers responded by blaming the crimes on Gates. «We’re primarily here because of one man. That man is Rick Gates,» defense lawyer Thomas Zehnle said in his opening statement.

The day featured testimony from the prosecution’s first witness, Tad Devine, a Democratic political consultant who worked with Manafort on campaigns in Ukraine. His testimony was aimed at demonstrating that Manafort worked for the Party of Regions and its leader, former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Day 2: The second day of the trial was focused on Manafort’s lavish lifestyle, with testimonies aimed at showing his taste for luxury and establishing his need for money and motive to commit fraud.

Several vendors, including a high-end New York men’s clothier, a landscaper and a home technology executive, testified how Manafort spent millions of dollars on luxury goods and services, almost always paying with wire transfers from foreign accounts.

Admonished by the judge on Tuesday that «it isn’t a crime to make a lot of money and be profligate in your spending,» prosecutor Asonye said that while it isn’t «a crime to have a lot of money,» it is a crime to not pay taxes.

Asonye made a stir on Wednesday by suggesting Gates might not be asked to take the stand. But prosecutors later put the speculation to rest, saying they had «every intention» of calling Gates to testify.

Day 3: The prosecution’s focus shifted on the third day of the trial from Manafort’s extravagant lifestyle to his financial history, and how he kept his bookkeepers and tax preparers in the dark about his overseas accounts.

Longtime Manafort bookkeeper Heather Washkuhn took the stand, testifying that she did not know about Manafort’s foreign bank accounts and relied on him for determining whether to report something as income or a loan. Contradicting the defense’s argument that Manafort was too busy to be involved in his finances, she said Manafort «approved every penny of everything we paid.»

Day 4: Accountants Philip Ayliff and Cindy Laporte, who prepared Manafort’s tax returns for several years, testified that they had no knowledge that Manafort controlled foreign corporate entities and bank accounts. They told the jury they asked Manafort every year about his foreign holdings and he told them he had none.

Laporte testified that she changed Manafort’s tax return in 2014 to lower his taxes by as much as $500,000 and two years later helped him falsify documents in order to get bank loans.

Like several other witnesses, Laporte has been given immunity from prosecution in exchange for her testimony.

Defense lawyer Kevin Downing questioned the prosecution’s claim that Manafort willfully hid his foreign accounts from his financial advisers, saying the firm kept documents containing details about them. «Only a fool would give that information to his accountant if he was trying to conceal it» from the Internal Revenue Service, Downing said.

The trial resumes on Monday afternoon with the cross-examination of Laporte by defense lawyers.