Paul Manafort's Trial For Alleged Bank And Tax Fraud Begins

Jul 31, 2018
Originally published on August 1, 2018 10:51 am
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was the scene you would expect outside the federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., today where the trial of Paul Manafort is underway. There were lots of TV cameras, some protesters. President Trump's former campaign chairman faces tax evasion and bank fraud charges. This is the first trial brought on by the indictments of special counsel Robert Mueller.

NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has been at the courthouse in Alexandria since very, very, very early this morning, and she joins us now. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So just a short while ago, both sides presented their opening statements, laying out their arguments. Can you first tell us, what is the case prosecutors are bringing against Manafort?

JOHNSON: Sure. So the - one of the lead prosecutors in this case, Uzo Asonye, basically said all of these charges - bank fraud, tax fraud, conspiracy - they all boil down to one single issue, that Paul Manafort lied. Asonye told the jury that a man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him.

Prosecutors say Paul Manafort took in something like $60 million for his lobbying work in Ukraine, then concealed a lot of that money from the IRS and also concealed foreign bank accounts. He used that money, the government says, to fund the purchase of many homes, a half million dollars in carpets, a $15,000 custom jacket made from an ostrich.

And then to hide his tracks, Paul Manafort doctored financial statements. In essence, the government says Paul Manafort deceived not just the IRS but also his own bookkeepers. The prosecutor concluded garbage in, garbage out when it comes to what goes to the IRS and what is reported.

CHANG: And what's Manafort's defense to all of that?

JOHNSON: Yeah, Tom Zehnle, one of the lead lawyers for Paul Manafort, says this is a case about taxes but also a case about trust. He portrayed Paul Manafort as a self-made man, the first guy in his family to go to college. And he says that Paul Manafort placed his trust in the wrong man, his business partner and second in command, Rick Gates.

He says Paul Manafort was often seven or eight different time zones away from Virginia or New York and that he couldn't be relied on to keep track of all this money. In essence, Manafort is putting Rick Gates, his former business partner, on trial. Remember that Rick Gates only a few months ago pleaded guilty himself and agreed to cooperate with the government. Rick Gates is expected to be the star witness against his former friend Paul Manafort.

CHANG: Have we heard from any witnesses yet?

JOHNSON: We did. This courthouse is called the rocket docket for a reason. They're moving...

CHANG: Wow.

JOHNSON: ...Right along here. The first witness in this case has already finished his testimony, a man named Thomas or Tad Devine, a pretty well-known political consultant in Washington for the last 25 years who has done work for Democrats and Republicans. In this case he was talking about the five years of work he did alongside Paul Manafort for the government in Ukraine writing ads, TV and radio ads and other things. He portrayed Manafort as a guy who was very involved and very in charge. Although on cross-examination, Manafort's lawyers got Devine to say that Manafort did a tremendous job, and he had a high regard for all of the work and professionalism that Manafort had done over the years.

CHANG: Now, this trial is expected to last about three weeks, so we'll certainly be hearing more in the days to come. But I'm curious. What should we keep an eye out for tomorrow?

JOHNSON: Well, tomorrow we're going to have another political consultant who worked with Manafort in Ukraine and then the first in a series of FBI agents who talked to Manafort and investigated his finances over the years. So it may be a very document-heavy day tomorrow.

CHANG: OK, that's NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thank you, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.