- The Trump Organization tax-fraud trial is in its second week in a criminal courthouse in Manhattan.
- Jurors on Tuesday saw the first evidence linking the alleged fraud to the very top of the company.
- Donald and Eric Trump’s signatures may refute defense claims that the scheme stopped with underlings.
Jurors in the Trump Organization criminal tax-fraud trial have seen the first evidence directly linking Donald Trump to the case, including key documents bearing the former president’s distinctive Sharpie-scrawled signatures and initials.
This early prosecution breakthrough came Tuesday in the Manhattan courtroom where Trump’s real-estate and golf resort empire — though not Trump himself — is on trial for allegedly helping its executives cheat on their income taxes.
Jurors were shown what the prosecution said and what a witness confirmed were Trump’s signatures on some half-dozen important letters and payroll documents. It’s evidence meant to soundly refute defense claims that the tax-dodge scheme stopped one rung down from the very top of the company, meaning just short of involving anyone named Trump.
The documents were introduced through the trial’s first witness, Jeffrey McConney, who as Trump Organization’s controller is responsible for its payroll and tax reporting.
McConney would wind up derailing the trial on Tuesday afternoon by testing positive for COVID-19 over the lunch break. His testimony — and the trial itself — is tentatively scheduled to resume Monday morning.
But during his morning on the stand on Tuesday — and in between bouts of coughing — McConney managed to do some damage to the defense by saying “Donald Trump,” “Mr. Trump” and “President Trump” repeatedly as he was asked to identify the signatures being shown on courtroom screens.
“Who’s signature is that?” Joshua Steinglass, one of the two lead prosecutors, asked McConney as jurors looked at an overhead projection of a May 1, 2005 letter.
“President Trump,” McConney said of the signature, identifying the now widely-recognized, mini mountain range of Sharpie ink at the bottom of the letter.
“And is that his full signature?”
“Yes,” McConney answered.
In the 17-year-old letter, Trump personally authorized a $6,500-a-month lease for an apartment on Manhattan’s Hudson River waterfront; Trump’s letter said it was to be lived in exclusively by his longtime chief financial officer.
“In other words, Donald J. Trump authorized Donald J. Trump to sign the lease” for the apartment, Steinglass asked of the letter’s content. The coughing controller answered “yes.”
“Who signed this lease?” for the apartment, Steinglass then asked, showing the lease itself on the screen.
“That’s President Trump’s signature,” McConney answered.
The now former CFO who enjoyed that free company apartment — in what was once the Trump Place on Riverside Boulevard — is an even more important prosecution witness, Allen Weisselberg, who started with the company back when Trump’s father was running it in 1973.
Now a “special advisor” who’s on leave but still getting his salary and a defense lawyer on Trump’s dime, Weisselberg admitted in August to living in the apartment for years as part of an off-the-tax-books package of Trump Organization executive “perks.”
The entire case is about these “perks” — fringe benefits ranging from luxury cars and apartments to free electronics, carpeting, and private school tuition for Weisselberg’s son and grandkids.
Weisselberg admitted in his guilty plea that he pocketed more than $1.76 million in perks over the 15-year life of the tax-dodge scheme. Although the perks were a part of his pay, he never paid income taxes on them as required by law.
Weisselberg is now the fall guy in the defense strategy. No one named Trump participated in the tax-dodge scheme, jurors were told in defense opening statements Monday. Instead, the scheme started and stopped with the CFO.
“Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg,” as Trump Organization lawyer Michael van der Veen told jurors repeatedly in openings.
On Tuesday the prosecution theory — which alleges that at least on some occasions Trump, and therefore the company, did it for Weisselberg — is being bolstered by a scattering of paperwork in this already document-dense trial.
At one point Tuesday, jurors saw Trump’s black marker initials on two 2011 invoices. In one, from P.C. Richard & Son, Trump signed off on $1,954.17 in electronics. On the other, he signed off on nearly $7,000 in carpeting from ABC Carpet and Home.
Prosecutors say both the electronics and carpeting were part of Weisselberg’s package of illegally untaxed perks.
Eric Trump’s signature also surfaced on a 2020 document shown to jurors Tuesday.
McConney testified that the document is a record of Eric Trump signing off on that year’s pay for Weisselberg, including $640,000 plus a $500,000 bonus, and for McConney, who was to earn $300,000 plus a $125,000 bonus.
Trump himself personally signed some of the six years worth of private school tuition checks for Weisselberg’s grandchildren, prosecutors have alleged in describing yet more untaxed perks.
“Are you aware that Allen Weisselberg’s grandchildren went to a private school” in Manhattan, Steinglass asked McConney on Tuesday.
“Yes,” the controller answered.
When Steinglass asked him what the school’s name is, McConney answered “Columbia something. I don’t remember.”
“Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School?” the prosecutor suggested.
“I believe so,” McConney answered.
“That’s also where Donald Trump’s son went?” the prosecutor continued.
“I believe so,” McConney answered again.
“Who paid the tuition” for Weisselberg’s grandkids, the prosecutor asked.
“Mr. Trump,” the controller mumbled.
“You said Mr. Trump?” the prosecutor asked.
“President Trump,” the controller answered.
“Did he sign those checks himself?” the prosecutor asked.
“I believe so, yes,” the controller answered.
“Who decided that Donald Trump would pay Allen Weisselberg’s tuition,” the prosecutor then asked.
Here was a strategic question. Could the defense pin this on Weisselberg doing it for Weisselberg? Who but Trump himself could decide to uncap his marker and sign his own checks?
“I have no idea,” the controller answered, one of several occasions when he stopped short of implicating “the boss,” as he called the former president.
Those Trump-signed tuition checks, including one totaling $89,000 from 2015, have yet to be shown to jurors.
Now sick with COVID, McConney won’t be back on the stand — and the trial will not resume, and the tuition checks will remain in an evidence thumb drive — until Monday morning at the earliest.