Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort thought he was above the law, prosecutors say as trial begins
The trial represents the first test of US special counsel Robert Mueller’s ability to win a conviction
Paul Manafort orchestrated a multimillion-dollar conspiracy to evade US tax and banking laws, leaving behind a trail of lies as he lived a lavish lifestyle, prosecutors said on Tuesday as they laid out their case against the former campaign chairman for US President Donald Trump.
During his opening statement in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, Assistant US Attorney Uzo Asonye told the jury that Manafort considered himself above the law as he funnelled tens of millions of dollars through offshore accounts. That “secret income” was used to pay for personal expenses such as a US$21,000 watch, a US$15,000 jacket made of ostrich and more than US$6 million worth of real estate paid for in cash, Asonye said.
“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him – not tax law, not banking law,” Asonye said of Manafort as he sketched out the evidence gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
The government intends to show that Manafort funnelled more than US$60 million in proceeds from his Ukrainian political consulting through offshore accounts and hid a “significant” portion of it from the IRS.
Manafort, 69, who has been jailed for nearly two months, wore a black suit and appeared fully engaged in his defence, whispering with his lawyers during jury selection and scribbling notes as the prosecution began its opening statement.
Asonye said Manafort created “bogus” loans, falsified documents and lied to his tax preparer and book-keeper to conceal the money, which he obtained from Ukrainian oligarchs through a series of shell company transfers and later from fraudulently obtained bank loans in the US.
The comments by Asonye were the first volley in Manafort’s bank fraud and tax evasion trial, which is expected to last several weeks.
It’s the first trial arising from Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Mueller was not present in the courtroom on Tuesday.
While prosecutors are not expected to address the question of possible collusion between Trump and Russia, Manafort’s case is widely viewed as a test to the legitimacy of Mueller’s continuing investigation, which Trump has dismissed as a “witch hunt.”
“There was No Collusion (except by Crooked Hillary and the Democrats)!” Trump tweeted early on Tuesday.
Prosecutors have lined up 35 witnesses and more than 500 pieces of evidence they say will show how Manafort earned more than US$60 million from his Ukrainian work and then concealed a “significant percentage” of that money from the IRS. Prosecutors will also argue that Manafort fraudulently obtained millions more in bank loans, including during his time on the campaign.
A jury of six men and six women was selected earlier on Tuesday, along with four alternate jurors.
The pool of jurors faced questions from both sides and US District Judge TS Ellis III as they tried to weed out potential prejudice in what has become a highly publicised and politically divisive investigation.
Prosecutors say they will introduce evidence that a chairman of one of the banks allowed Manafort to file inaccurate loan information in exchange for a role on the Republican campaign and the promise of a job in the Trump administration that never materialised.
Before the start of jury selection Tuesday, prosecutors filed an expanded list of its evidence exhibits, including several email chains between Manafort and Stephen Calk, the Chicago bank chairman. The added evidence also appears to include documents related to bank accounts in Cyprus.
At the centre of much of the trial will be another Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, who spent years working for Manafort in Ukraine and is also accused of helping him falsify paperwork used to obtain the bank loans. Gates, who cut a plea deal with Mueller earlier this year, is expected to testify against his former mentor.
Gates is also expected to play a key role in Manafort’s second trial, scheduled for September. That trial, set in the District of Columbia, involves allegations that the long-time political consultant acted as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests and made false statements to the US government.
The other 31 people charged by Mueller so far have either pleaded guilty or are Russians seen as unlikely to enter an American courtroom. Three Russian companies have also been charged. One of those companies has pleaded not guilty and is fighting the allegations in federal court in Washington.