- The Trump Organization criminal tax-fraud trial is in its fourth week in lower Manhattan.
- On Tuesday, lawyers for Trump’s company debuted a new defense: Trump is just a generous boss.
- An employee brushed off the DA’s best evidence — checks signed by Trump — as mere “gifts.”
Lawyers for Donald Trump’s real-estate empire debuted a new defense at the company’s Manhattan tax-fraud trial on Tuesday: Trump is just a generous boss.
Tuition checks signed by Trump or his son, Eric — perhaps the prosecution’s best evidence linking the worst examples from 15 years of payroll tax fraud to the very top of the company — were not part of any scheme, jurors were told.
Instead, the checks were actually “gifts,” the trial’s second prosecution witness told jurors.
“You understood that to be a gift from Mr. Trump to Mr. Weisselberg?” defense lawyer Michael van der Veen asked the witness, referring to Allen Weisselberg, the company’s ex-CFO.
“Objection!” prosecutor Joshua Steinglass said, interrupting the witness, Deborah Tarasoff, the Trump Organization’s accounts payable supervisor.
The judge overruled the objection. “Yes,” Tarasoff answered.
The Trump Organization’s two top financial executives admittedly dodged income taxes for 15 years. Trump’s company, though not Trump himself, is on trial in New York Supreme Court fighting charges it was in on the scheme.
The company’s two top money men — Weisselberg, the ex-CFO, and Jeffrey McConney, the controller — have already admitted that they illegally took big chunks of their pay each year in the form of tax-free perks such as luxury cars and rent-free apartments.
The pricey perks — a total of $1.76 million worth for Weisselberg alone — were recorded in company ledgers as executive compensation, yet never showed up on company W2 forms.
But while company cars and apartments could arguably be legitimate employee fringe benefits, it was hard to make that argument for a perk like tuition for Weisselberg’s two grandchildren.
Trump’s signature, or that of his son Eric, are on the bottom of 13 of those tuition checks, making it virtually impossible for defense lawyers to deny the two knew about them.
The checks, many cut from Trump’s personal checking account, transferred a total of $359,000 to the Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, paying Weisselberg’s two grandchildren’s tuition from 2012 to 2016.
Tarasoff, who for 22 years wielded the company’s “accounts payable” stamp, and who cut nearly all of the checks involved in the alleged scheme, testified Trump never told her to do so.
But Weisselberg, her direct boss, told her to cut checks all the time, she said.
“Allen told me to do it, I did it,” she told jurors.
The defense has labored to keep Trump and his three eldest children — all of whom have served as vice presidents — as distant as possible from the nuts and bolts of the admitted fraud.
Tarasoff’s testimony Tuesday — that it was her understanding that the tuition was not compensation at all but a “gift” from Trump to one of his top executives — is the first use of that defense in the four-week trial.
Weisselberg himself is also testifying Tuesday and will likely corroborate the “generous, not crooked” defense.
Weisselberg has let it be known that despite his August guilty plea, in which he admitted his own role in the fraud, he will not incriminate anyone at the company named Trump.
Tarasoff was only on the stand for half of the morning Tuesday, but she provided the trial with its first laugh-out-loud moments.
“That’s him!” she said, waving and laughing, when asked by Steinglass to point out the defense lawyer she’d met with prior to her testimony.
“I’m a little nervous, sorry,” she apologized.
Describing her responsibilities, she told jurors that she cuts checks, retrieved them from whomever needed to sign them, and then “I’d pull them apart and then I’d mail those buggers out.”
“By buggers, do you mean checks?” Steinglass asked. She did, she said.
Asked about Donald Bender, the Trump Organization’s outside accountant, then a partner at the Mazars accounting firm, she said she’d interacted with him “a little.”
“I invited him to my daughter’s wedding,” she said.
Steinglass at another point showed Tarasoff a check numbered “14103” that she’d once cut, paying the fourth of 36 lease installments on a Mercedes for Weisselberg’s wife.
“Thanks for making it bigger,” she said, as she squinted at an image of the check on a screen.
“Could that number be the Mercedes make number?” Steinglass suggested.
“I’m not sure!” she answered. “I can’t afford a Mercedes.”
“Me neither,” the prosecutor noted.