Mystery recess triggers speculation in Manafort trial
Paul Manafort’s criminal trial on bank and tax fraud charges was held up for several hours Friday as the federal judge presiding over the case repeatedly met with federal prosecutors and Manafort’s defense attorneys.
Judge T.S. Ellis III, who has otherwise placed a priority on the trial moving quickly, pushed the start of witness testimony in the trial until Friday afternoon, according to multiple media reports.
Ellis began the day by holding a bench conference with attorneys from both sides before the jury was called into the courtroom, and held a second conference before leaving the room “to consider an issue,” according to Politico.
Multiple news outlets noted that the judge did not exit through the door toward his chambers, but instead through doors in the direction of the jury room.
Ellis returned about 45 minutes later, at which point he summoned the jury for attendance and said they would take an early lunch break.
He reiterated to the jury the importance of not discussing the case with anyone, reminding them that Manafort has “a presumption of innocence” and to “keep an open mind until all the evidence is in,” Politico reported.
The delay came after special counsel Robert Mueller’s team criticized Ellis in a court filing Friday, urging the judge to tell the jury to ignore one of his previous comments in order to prevent them from misunderstanding the gravity of testimony presented to them.
Ellis had interjected Thursday during the questioning of a bank employee by prosecutor Uzo Asonye. The employee was discussing how Manafort attempted but failed to get a $5.5 million construction loan, according to Politico.
“You might want to spend time on a loan that was granted,” the judge said.
“Your honor, this is a charged count in the indictment,” Asonye responded.
“I know that,” Ellis said.
That exchange was addressed Friday in a court filing by prosecutors.
“The Court’s statement that the government ‘might want to spend time on a loan that was granted’ misrepresents the law regarding bank fraud conspiracy, improperly conveys the Court’s opinion of the facts, and is likely to confuse and mislead the jury,” prosecutors wrote.
The filing marked the second time that federal prosecutors have requested Ellis issue a corrective statement during the trial.
The judge said Thursday that he was “probably wrong” for criticizing prosecutors for having one of their witnesses, IRS revenue agent Michael Welch, in the courtroom ahead of his testimony. Ellis had previously given prosecutors permission to let Welch observe the trial before he was called to the stand.
Friday’s unexplained delay has sparked speculation among observers that there could be discussions about a potential plea deal. But there have been no other signs that a plea agreement is in the works, and Manafort’s lawyer said ahead of the trial that the former Trump campaign chairman would not agree to one.
Federal prosecutors were expected to call their final witnesses on Friday, but the delay suggests they could continue presenting their case early next week.
Dennis Raico, a former employee at Federal Savings Bank in Chicago, took the stand on Friday afternoon. Bloomberg News reported that Raico testified that the bank’s chief executive officer Stephen Calk expedited approval of a loan to Manafort and wanted his assistance in getting a job in the Trump administration.