Judge raps prosecutors over testimony on Manafort’s luxuries
ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) — Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort personally directed millions of dollars in international wire transfers to pay for high-end suits and more than $3 million in improvements at his various houses, witnesses testified Wednesday on the second day of his financial fraud trial.
The testimony was aimed at bolstering the prosecution’s argument that Manafort hid millions of dollars in income from the IRS and used the funds for a lavish lifestyle. The witness accounts were also intended to contradict Manafort’s lawyers, who have signaled they will pin blame for any illegal conduct on his longtime deputy, Rick Gates.
The prosecution’s focus on Manafort’s personal finances — at times laid out in painstaking detail — underscored the vast amount of documents accumulated by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in their case against the longtime political consultant. But it also tried the patience of U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who repeatedly scolded the government’s attorneys for what he said was excessive and unnecessary information.
Ellis, who warned prosecutors against using the word “oligarchs” to describe wealthy Ukrainians, several times admonished them for spending so much time documenting Manafort’s extravagant lifestyle.
It’s not a crime to be wealthy, he noted. And the pejorative term “oligarchs” and evidence of home renovations aren’t necessarily relevant to the charges in question, he added.
“The government doesn’t want to prosecute somebody because they wear nice clothes, do they?” Ellis said amid testimony that Manafort had spent more than $900,000 on clothing from a boutique retailer where he was one of only about 40 clients. “Let’s move on.”
Ellis even called out lawyers from both sides for rolling their eyes.
The trial is the first courtroom test for the special counsel, who was tasked last year with investigating Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 election and to determine whether the Trump campaign was involved. So far, Manafort is the lone person to stand trial as a result of the ongoing probe, even though the charges of bank fraud and tax evasion are unrelated to possible collusion.
Still, the trial has pulled back the curtain on the former lobbyist who steered Trump’s election efforts for a time, including descriptions of Manafort’s $15,000 jacket made of ostrich and the more than $6 million in cash he put toward real estate. One witness, Maximillian Katzman, testified that Manafort spent more than $900,000 at his boutique retailer in New York. He said Manafort was the only business client of his who paid via international wire transfer.
An FBI agent described the July 2017 raid on Manafort’s Virginia condominium, saying he knocked multiple times before entering with a key and finding Manafort inside. The searches described by agent Matthew Mikuska found expensively tailored suits and documents related to other luxury items allegedly bought by Manafort, including two silk rugs bought for $160,000 paid from offshore accounts.
But when prosecutors introduced photos of Manafort’s high-end condo and expensive suits, Ellis interrupted so as to limit the growing list of evidence jurors would have to consider.
“All this document shows is that Mr. Manafort had a lavish lifestyle,” Ellis said. “It isn’t relevant.”
On the term “oligarchs,” Ellis said use of the word implied that Manafort was associating with “despicable people and therefore he’s despicable.”
“That’s not the American way,” the judge said.
Prosecutor Greg Andres argued that documenting Manafort’s spending for the jury was important to the case.
“Judge, this is not an effort to prove Mr. Manafort lived lavishly,” Andres said. “It’s evidence of his income.”
Ellis seemed to grow impatient after being told that attorneys on both sides were seen rolling their eyes after leaving the bench or in response to his rulings. The lawyers’ facial expressions, Ellis said, appeared to show them thinking: “Why do we have to put up with this idiot judge?”
The proceedings clearly caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who defended his 2016 hiring of Manafort and suggested Manafort was being treated worse than mobster Al Capone. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the president indeed felt Manafort had been treated unfairly.
“Why didn’t government tell me that he was under investigation,” Trump tweeted Wednesday. “These old charges have nothing to do with Collusion - a Hoax!”
Manafort’s attorneys are putting the blame on Gates, Manafort’s business associate.
Gates was expected to be the government’s star witness at trial, but prosecutor Uzo Asonye said he could not say with certainty whether Gates would or would not testify. He later clarified to say that that uncertainty applies to any witness, not just Gates, as the prosecution team assesses the pace of the trial and the evidence it needs.
Asonye also told Ellis that prosecutors expect to rest their case next week, noting that they are “ahead of schedule.”
Testimony was to resume Thursday morning with witnesses including bookkeepers and accountants.
Manafort has a second trial scheduled for September in the District of Columbia. It involves allegations that he acted as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests and made false statements to the U.S. government.