NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s company and its longtime finance chief were charged Thursday in what prosecutors called a “sweeping and audacious” tax fraud scheme in which the executive collected more than $1.7 million in off-the-books compensation, including apartment rent, car payments, and school tuition.
Trump himself was not charged with any wrongdoing at this stage of the investigation, but prosecutors noted he signed some of the checks at the center of the case. And top prosecutor Carey Dunne said the 15-year scheme was “orchestrated by the most senior executives” at the Trump Organization.
Dunne—a top deputy in the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.—asserted that politics played no role in the decision to bring charges. “Politics has no role in the jury chamber, and I can assure you it had no role here,” he said while announcing the grand jury indictment.
Trump Organization Chief Financial Officer Allen Weisselberg was photographed walking into a building that houses both the criminal courts and the Manhattan district attorney’s office around 6:20 a.m. Thursday. He was led into court in the afternoon with his hands cuffed behind his back. Vance declined to comment on the case as he arrived at the courthouse Thursday, saying only “See you all at 2:15”—a reference to Weisselberg’s expected arraignment time.
Both Weisselberg and lawyers for the Trump Organization pleaded not guilty. In court, Trump Organization lawyer Alan Futerfas said Dunne’s remarks sounded like a “press release,” but didn’t comment further.
Weisselberg’s lawyers, Mary Mulligan and Bryan Skarlatos, said in a statement before his appearance that the executive would “fight these charges in court.” Skarlatos later said Dunne’s remarks were misleading in regard to his client.
Weisselberg was ordered to surrender his passport after prosecutors called him a flight risk with access to private jets for foreign travel. He was released without bail, however, and left the courthouse without commenting to assembled reporters.
According to the indictment filed Wednesday and unveiled Thursday, from 2005 through this year, CFO Allen Weisselberg and the Trump Organization cheated tax officials, conspiring to pay senior executives off the books by way of lucrative fringe benefits and other means.
Weisselberg alone was accused of defrauding the federal government, state, and city out of more than $900,000 in unpaid taxes and undeserved tax refunds. The most serious charge against him, grand larceny, carries five to 15 years in prison. The tax fraud charges against the company are punishable by a fine of double the amount of unpaid taxes, or $250,000, whichever is larger.
Weisselberg, 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 he avoided paying hundreds of thousands in federal, state, and city income taxes while collecting about $133,000 in refunds to which he was not entitled, prosecutors said.
According to the indictment, Weisselberg paid rent on his Manhattan apartment with company checks and directed the company to pay for his utility bills and parking, too. Trump’s company also issued checks, 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, prosecutors said.
Weisselberg’s son—Trump employee Barry Weisselberg—paid no reported rent while living in a Trump-owned apartment in 2018. He was charged just $1,000 per month—far below typical Manhattan prices—while living in a Trump apartment from 2005 to 2012, the indictment said. In March, Jenn Weisselberg, Barry’s ex-wive, told the New Yorker that some compensation for Trump Organization executives came in the form of apartments and other items and that “only a small part of your salary is reported.”
The indictment claims that the company also paid for private school tuition for Weisselberg’s grandchildren with checks bearing Trump’s signature, as well as for Mercedes 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 being part of Weisselberg’s 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.
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.
Michael Cohen, the former Trump lawyer who has been cooperating with Vance’s investigation, wrote in his book “Disloyal” that Trump and Weisselberg were “masters at allocating expenses that related to non-business matters and finding a way to categorize them so they weren’t taxed.” Cohen said Weisselberg was the one who decided how to secretly reimburse him for a $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels, the porn star who said she had sex with Trump.
Barbara Res, who oversaw the construction of Manhattan’s Trump Tower, says she was surprised to learn about the seemingly large role Weisselberg has played in Trump’s business. She recalls him years ago just collecting rent, paying bills, and doing Trump’s taxes. “He was the chief accountant, but he wasn’t in the inner circle. He would come in with his head down, ‘Yes, Mr. Trump. No, Mr. Trump,’” Res said. “He’s the only person I knew who would call him Mr. Trump. Now he’s a big shot.”
The 73-year-old Weisselberg has intimate knowledge of the Trump Organization’s financial dealings from nearly five decades at the company. Weisselberg first started working for real estate developer Fred Trump after answering a newspaper ad for a staff accountant in 1973 and rose in the organization. Keeping a low profile—aside from a 2004 appearance as a judge on Trump’s reality TV show “The Apprentice”—Weisselberg was barely mentioned in news articles before Trump started running for president and questions arose about the boss’ finances and charity.
Weisselberg has a reputation as a workaholic utterly devoted to Trump’s interests. So far, though, there’s no sign that the man regarded by Trump’s daughter Ivanka as a “fiercely loyal” deputy who’s “stood alongside my father and our family” for decades will suddenly turn on them. Even so, the charges against him could enable prosecutors to pressure him into cooperating with the investigation by telling them what he knows about Trump’s business dealings.
“I think it’s possible that Weisselberg would reconsider. Seeing the charges spelled out in this much detail, and seeing that the alleged federal tax loss is included, could, in theory, change his mind,” said Daniel R. Alonso, former chief assistant district attorney. “On the other hand, he is a loyal Trump soldier, which obviously argues against his cooperation.”
In addition to exposing the Trump Organizations to fines, the criminal case could make it more difficult for the business to secure bank loans or strike deals—a hit that comes at a particularly bad time, with the company already reeling from lost business because of the coronavirus and the backlash over the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
“Companies that are being indicted, whether they are private or public, big or small, face serious collateral consequences,” said Daniel Horwitz, a white-collar defense attorney. “Companies in the financial services industry are reluctant to do business with them. Their access to capital is limited or cut off.”
The Trump Organization defended Weisselberg, accusing Vance’s office of using the 48-year employee as “a pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president.” It said the DA’s office and the IRS have never before brought criminal charges against a company over employee benefits. “This is not justice; this is politics,” according to the Trump Org.
Prosecutors have been scrutinizing Trump’s tax records, subpoenaing documents, and interviewing witnesses, including Trump insiders and company executives. A grand jury was recently empaneled to weigh the evidence. In a statement, Trump condemned the case as a “political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats.”
Trump has said his company’s actions were were “things that are standard practice throughout the U.S. business community, and in no way a crime” and that Vance’s probe was an investigation was “in search of a crime.”
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. Jason Miller, a longtime former senior adviser to the former Republican president, spun the looming charges as “politically terrible for the Democrats.”
“They told their crazies and their supplicants in the mainstream media this was about President Trump. Instead, their Witch Hunt is persecuting an innocent 80-year-old man for maybe taking free parking!” Miller tweeted, apparently referring to Weisselberg.
Trump Organization lawyers met virtually with Manhattan prosecutors last week in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade them from charging the company. Prosecutors gave the lawyers a Monday deadline to make the case that criminal charges shouldn’t be filed.
Ron Fischetti, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, told the AP: “There is no indictment coming down this week against the former president,” he said. “I can’t say he’s out of the woods yet completely.”
“We have been working with prosecutors for many months now as part of this tax and financial investigation and have provided a large volume of evidence that allowed them to bring these charges,” said Duncan Levin—lawyer Jen Weisselberg—on Wednesday. “We are gratified to hear that the DA’s office is moving forward with a criminal case.”
Prosecutors subpoenaed another long-time Trump finance executive, senior vice president and controller Jeffrey McConney, to testify in front of the grand jury in the spring. Under New York law, grand jury witnesses are granted immunity and can not be charged for conduct they testify about.
Prosecutors probing untaxed benefits to Trump executives have also been looking at Matthew Calamaria, former Trump bodyguard turned chief operating officer, and his son, the company’s corporate director of security. However, a lawyer for the Calamaris said Wednesday that he didn’t expect them to be charged.
“Although the DA’s investigation obviously is ongoing, I do not expect charges to be filed against either of my clients at this time,” said the lawyer, Nicholas Gravante.