(NEW YORK) — Closing statements are beginning Thursday in the criminal tax fraud trial of former President Donald Trump’s family business, the outcome of which could turn on the vagaries and nuances of a part of New York criminal law that even the presiding judge has called “confusing.”
The Trump Organization is accused of partially compensating certain executives by paying their rent, covering their car lease payments, and providing other under-the-table perks never declared on their income taxes.
Prosecutors plan to remind the jury about the August guilty plea of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s former chief financial officer who testified that he arranged the illegal compensation scheme for his own benefit, concealed it from the company’s outside accountant, and ended it only when Trump’s ascendance to the presidency invited fresh scrutiny of the company’s business practices.
In a closing statement he estimated could run four or five hours, prosecutor Josh Steinglass said he will tell the jury that Weisselberg qualifies as a “high managerial agent” of the company and committed his crimes while in his official capacity.
But that alone may not be enough for a conviction. Judge Juan Merchan said he will allow defense attorneys to argue in their closing statements that prosecutors failed to show Weisselberg acted “in behalf of” the company.
“The people will need to demonstrate to some degree, to some extent, there was an intent to benefit the corporation,” Merchan said during a conference Tuesday in which he mulled how he will instruct the jury on the law.
The confusing part, the judge said, is that the New York state legislators who drafted the relevant statute did not define exactly what “in behalf of” means in that context.
The judge said he would not allow the defense to “overstate what that intent was.”
Weisselberg testified that he paid the Trump Organization back for the free perks by reducing his reported annual salary by the total value of the perks he received — but prosecutors pointed out that the move saved the company money by reducing its payroll taxes.
“It was understood that by having less payroll you’d have less payroll taxes,” Weisselberg acknowledged on the stand.
The longtime CFO, who agreed to testify as part of a plea deal with prosecutors, said his primary goal in arranging the perks was to “save pretax dollars.”
On cross-examination, defense attorney Susan Necheles accused Weisselberg of “desperately trying to help prosecutors come up with a benefit” to the company, so he could fulfill a requirement of his plea agreement that he testify to the satisfaction of the district attorney’s office.
“That’s not in my mind,” Weisselberg said.
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