Closing arguments at the Trump Organisation’s criminal tax fraud trial got off to a rocky start as a lawyer for the company was caught showing jurors portions of witness evidence that had previously been struck from the official court record.
Prosecutors objected to the display about an hour into lawyer Susan Necheles’ presentation, and Judge Juan Manuel Merchan admonished Ms Necheles and halted arguments so she could remove any other precluded evidence from a slideshow she was showing to jurors.
Ms Necheles said she did not intend to show any evidence that had been struck out as a result of a sustained objection. Judge Merchan noted that the objections themselves had been removed from the excerpts Ms Necheles showed, but not the objectionable evidence.
The lawyer resumed her closing argument after a half-hour break. Judge Merchan briefly discussed the transcript issue with jurors and Ms Necheles proceeded to show them the correct version, prefacing her remarks with a mea culpa: “Ladies and gentlemen, I apologise for that error.”
It was the latest dust-up involving Trump Organisation lawyers. Earlier this week, Judge Merchan scolded the defence for submitting hundreds of pages of court papers just before midnight on Sunday.
The Trump Organisation, the entity through which former president Donald Trump manages his property holdings and other ventures, is accused of helping some senior executives avoid paying income taxes on company-paid perks such as apartments and luxury cars.
The tax fraud case is the only trial to arise from the Manhattan district attorney’s three-year investigation of Mr Trump and his business practices.
The Trump Organisation’s long-time finance chief, Allen Weisselberg, has said he came up with the long-running scheme on his own, that he did so to save money on his own personal income taxes, and that neither Mr Trump nor his family knew about it.
Before the interruption, Ms Necheles was using excerpts from Weisselberg’s three days of evidence to underscore her argument that the executive was only intending to benefit himself, not the Trump Organisation, and that the company should not be blamed for his transgressions.
“We are here today for one reason and one reason only: the greed of Allen Weisselberg,” Ms Necheles said.
Weisselberg, a Trump Organisation senior adviser and former chief financial officer, started working for Mr Trump’s father Fred Trump in 1973 and joined Donald Trump’s company in 1986.
“Along the way, he messed up. He got greedy. Once he got started, it was difficult for him to stop,” Ms Necheles said.
Prosecutors argue that the Trump Organisation — through its subsidiaries Trump Corp and Trump Payroll Corp — is liable because Weisselberg was a “high managerial agent” entrusted to act on behalf of the company and its various entities.
If convicted, the Trump Organisation could be fined more than 1 million dollars (£810,000). It could also face some difficulty making future deals.
Ms Necheles argued that the case against the company is tenuous and that the 1965 state law underlying some of the charges requires prosecutors to show Weisselberg intended to benefit the company, not just himself.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August to dodging taxes on 1.7 million dollars in extras and testified against the Trump Organisation in exchange for a promised sentence of five months in jail.
The former finance chief said he conspired to hide his perks with the company’s senior vice president and controller, Jeffrey McConney, by adjusting payroll records to deduct their cost from his salary.
The arrangement reduced Weisselberg’s tax liability while also saving the company money because it did not have to give him a hefty raise to cover the cost of the perks and additional income taxes he would have incurred.
“I knew in my mind that there was a benefit to the company,” Weisselberg told the court.
But Ms Necheles argued that any benefit to the company was ancillary, minimal and unintentional.