‘Manafort and his lies’ at heart of case, prosecution argues
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Paul Manafort lied to keep himself flush with cash for his luxurious lifestyle and lied some more to procure millions in bank loans when his income dropped off, prosecutors told jurors Wednesday in closing arguments at the former Trump campaign chairman’s financial fraud trial. Jurors will begin deliberations Thursday.
In his defense, Manafort’s attorneys told jurors to question the entirety of the prosecution’s case as they sought to tarnish the credibility of Manafort’s longtime protege — and government witness — Rick Gates.
The conflicting strategies played out over several hours of argument that capped nearly three weeks of testimony in the first courtroom test for special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. The verdict, now in the hands of 12 jurors, will provide a measure of the special counsel’s ability to make charges stick.
And while the case doesn’t involve allegations of Russian election interference or possible coordination by the Trump campaign, it has been closely watched by President Donald Trump as he seeks to publicly undermine Mueller’s probe through a barrage of attacks on Twitter and through his lawyers.
In the closing arguments, prosecutor Greg Andres said the government’s case boils down to “Mr. Manafort and his lies.”
“When you follow the trail of Mr. Manafort’s money, it is littered with lies,” Andres said as he made his final argument that the jury should find Manafort guilty of 18 felony counts.
Attorneys for Manafort, who is accused of tax evasion and bank fraud, spoke next, arguing against his guilt by saying he left the particulars of his finances to other people, including Gates.
Defense attorney Richard Westling noted that Manafort employed a team of accountants, bookkeepers and tax preparers, a fact he said showed his client wasn’t trying to hide anything. Westling also painted the prosecutions’ case as consisting of cherry-picked evidence that doesn’t show jurors the full picture.
“None of the banks involved reported Manafort’s activities as suspicious,” he said, saying Manafort’s dealings only drew scrutiny when Mueller’s investigators started asking questions.
Westling questioned whether prosecutors had proven Manafort willfully violated the law, pointing to documents and emails that the defense lawyer said may well show numerical errors or sloppy bookkeeping or even false information on Manafort’s tax returns but no overt fraud.
During the prosecution’s arguments, jurors took notes as Manafort primarily directed his gaze at a computer screen where documents were shown. The screen showed emails written by Manafort that contained some of the most damning evidence that he was aware of the fraud and not simply a victim of underlings who managed his financial affairs.
Andres highlighted one email in which he said Manafort sent an inflated statement of his income to bank officers reviewing a loan application. He highlighted another in which Manafort acknowledged his control of one of more than 30 holding companies in Cyprus that prosecutors say he used to funnel more than $60 million he earned advising politicians in Ukraine.
Prosecutors say Manafort falsely declared some of that money to be loans rather than income to keep from paying taxes on it.
“Ladies and gentlemen, a loan is not income, and income is not a loan. You do not need to be a tax expert to understand this,” Andres said.
The government says Manafort hid at least $16 million in income from the IRS between 2010 and 2014. Then, after his money in Ukraine dried up, they allege, he defrauded banks by lying about his income on loan applications and concealing other financial information, such as mortgages.
Manafort chose not to testify or call any witnesses in his defense. His lawyers have tried to blame their client’s financial mistakes on Gates, calling him a liar and philanderer.
Gates, who struck a plea deal with prosecutors, told jurors he helped conceal millions of dollars in foreign income and submitted fake mortgage and tax documents. He was also forced to admit embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Manafort and conducting an extramarital affair.
Andres said the government isn’t asking jurors to like Gates or take everything he said at “face value.” He said the testimony of other witnesses and the hundreds of documents are enough to convict Manafort on tax evasion and bank fraud charges.
“Does the fact that Mr. Gates had an affair 10 years ago make Mr. Manafort any less guilty?” Andres asked, noting that Manafort didn’t choose a “Boy Scout” to aid a criminal scheme.
Referring to charts compiled by an IRS accounting specialist, Andres told jurors that Manafort declared only some of his foreign income on his federal income tax returns and repeatedly failed to disclose millions of dollars that streamed into the U.S. to pay for luxury items, services and property.
Andres said Manafort should have been well aware he was committing crime each time he signed tax and financial documents indicating that he had no foreign accounts to declare. “Mr. Manafort knew the law and he violated it anyway,” Andres said.
In a brief rebuttal after defense arguments, Andres said the defense “wants to make this case about Rick Gates,” but hasn’t explained “the dozens of documents” Manafort’s name is on.
The argument was in response to the arguments made by Manafort attorney Kevin Downing, who split the closing argument with Westling.
Downing told jurors that the government was so desperate to make a case against Manafort that it gave a sweetheart plea deal to Gates, and he would say whatever was necessary so it would not recommend he serve jail time.
“Mr. Gates, how he was able to get the deal he got, I have no idea,” Downing said.
Several times during their arguments, Downing and Westling referred to the prosecution as the “office of special counsel” and suggested that Manafort was the victim of selective prosecution, an argument the judge had specifically ruled they couldn’t make.
The move drew a quick objection outside the presence of the jurors by Andres. In response, Ellis attempted to repair any improper prejudice created by the defense attorneys, instructing jurors to put aside any argument about the government’s motive in bringing the case.
Leaving the courthouse, Downing said he felt “very good” about Manafort’s chances of being acquitted.
“Mr. Manafort was very happy with how things went today,” Downing said.
Associated Press writers Mary Clare Jalonick and Anne Flaherty contributed to this report.