Manafort trial day one: ‘Gates had his hand in the cookie jar’
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Defense attorneys in the criminal trial of Paul Manafort, President Trump’s former campaign chairman, claimed the real culprit of fraud is Manafort’s longtime business associate Rick Gates.
“Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,” Defense attorney Thomas Zehnle said during his 30-minute opening statement in which he accused Gates of embezzling from his former boss.
Zehnle said Manafort put Gates in charge of his business and personal finances while he was halfway around the world working on lucrative consulting contracts and Gates took advantage, “lining his own pockets.”
The remarks came Tuesday during opening statements in the start of the criminal trial against Manafort for bank and tax fraud charges, which stemmed from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.
Though the trial will not mention collusion, it marks the first courtroom trial of Mueller’s probe, which President Trump has lambasted as “witch hunt.” The investigation has led to dozens of indictments, but this is the first case to go to trial.
In the courtroom, Zehnle said the government’s own witnesses, including Manafort’s former bookkeeper Amanda Metzler, will testify that it was Gates who was in charge.
Zehnle argued that Manafort never intentionally misled the IRS, and that he only set up accounts through shell companies because that’s what his clients wanted to keep their support for political parties and candidates confidential.
Manafort is facing 18 counts of bank and tax fraud, including allegations that he laundered $30 million from work on behalf of pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and that he hid money overseas in unreported foreign accounts to avoid paying U.S. taxes.
The prosecution said the government will be able to prove that Manafort collected more than $60 million from his work for Ukrainian officials, and that he didn’t report all of the income so that he could maintain a life of luxury.
“There’s nothing wrong with being successful or rich, but when you sign a federal tax return you swear you have reported all your income,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye said during his opening statement.
Asonye listed what he referred to as examples of Manafort’s extravagant lifestyle: seven homes, including residences in Manhattan, Brooklyn, the Hamptons, Arlington, Va., and Florida; rugs that cost thousands of dollars; a $21,000 watch; and a custom made, $15,000 jacket made from an ostrich.
Manafort didn’t pay taxes for several years on millions of dollars stashed in bank accounts in Ukraine, Cyprus and the Caribbean, according to Asonye. He said the evidence will show Manafort opened 30 bank accounts in three counties that served no purpose than to receive and hide his income.
The defense countered that no one is disputing Manafort traveled in circles most people will never know, and that he was compensated quite handsomely for that work.
Instead, they said he is the victim of a dishonest business partner.
“He is a talented political consultant and good man,” Zehnle said.
After opening arguments, the government called its first witness, Democratic operative Tad Devine, who served as Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) chief strategist in his 2016 presidential run, multiple media outlets reported.
Devine testified that Manafort was clearly the boss of Gates, according to The Washington Post.
Tuesday’s proceedings started with jury selection which lasted about four hours as the prosecution and defense selected 12 jurors — six men and six women — and four alternatives from a pool of 65 prospective jurors.
Manafort, who was dressed in a black business suit for the first day of his trial, appeared to be actively participating in the jury selection. Donning his glasses, he reviewed documents and chatted with his attorneys as they decided whom to strike from the jury pool.
The defense was allowed to toss out 12 jurors, while the government was allotted eight strikes.
Judge T.S. Ellis repeatedly reminded the jury not to discuss the case with anyone, including their spouses and children at home, and not to do any research on the case.
He told the jury he hopes those selected “will not hurry to slit your wrists. There is a positive side to this. The court will supply your lunch every day.”
Ellis told the jury not to look for Baked Alaska on the menu, but said the lunch options will be “palatable.”
The Virginia trial, which is expected to last about three weeks, will reconvene at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday when prosecutors will call Daniel Rabine, a political consultant, and an unnamed FBI agent to testify, the Post reported.
Manafort faces a separate trial in September in Washington, D.C., also on charges brought by Mueller that include conspiring to defraud the government and launder money, making false statement to federal officials, and failing to disclose he was acting as a political consultant and lobbyist for former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, the political party Yanukovych led and the party that took over after he fled to Russia in 2014.
Updated at 6:57 p.m.