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Trump executive could face criminal charges as soon as this summer

  • NEW YORK TIMES / JUNE 5
                                Former President Donald Trump speaks during the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual convention in Greenville, N.C.

    NEW YORK TIMES / JUNE 5

    Former President Donald Trump speaks during the North Carolina Republican Party’s annual convention in Greenville, N.C.

The Manhattan district attorney’s office appears to have entered the final stages of a criminal tax investigation into Donald Trump’s long-serving chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, setting up the possibility he could face charges this summer, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

In recent weeks, a grand jury has been hearing evidence about Weisselberg, who is facing intense scrutiny from prosecutors as they seek his cooperation with a broader investigation into Trump and the Trump Organization, the people with knowledge of the matter said. The prosecutors have obtained Weisselberg’s personal tax returns, the people said, providing the fullest picture yet of his finances.

Even as the investigation has heated up, it remains unclear whether the prosecutors will seek an indictment of Weisselberg, which would mark the first criminal charges stemming from the long-running financial fraud investigation into Trump and his family company.

The investigation into Weisselberg focuses partly on whether he failed to pay taxes on valuable benefits that Trump provided him and his family over the years, including apartments and leased cars as well as tens of thousands of dollars in private school tuition for at least one of his grandchildren. In general, those types of benefits are taxable, although there are some exceptions, and the rules can be murky.

For months, prosecutors working for District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., a Democrat, have sought to pressure Weisselberg into cooperating with their investigation into Trump, and any deal could turn the trusted executive into a star witness against the former president. For now, Weisselberg appears to have rebuffed Vance’s office and continues to work at the Trump Organization.

The district attorney’s office recently questioned Weisselberg’s top lieutenant, Jeffrey McConney, before a special grand jury hearing evidence in the Trump inquiry, people with knowledge of the matter have said. The testimony was the first sign that the grand jury was hearing evidence about Weisselberg.

When hoping to turn an insider into a cooperating witness, prosecutors often seek leverage over the person, and then typically offer leniency in exchange for testimony or assistance.

The Trumps have long been able to count on Weisselberg’s fealty. After beginning his career working for Trump’s father, Weisselberg has served as the Trump Organization’s financial gatekeeper for more than two decades.

Even if Weisselberg chooses not to assist the investigation into his boss, charges against him could portend trouble for Trump, signaling that the prosecutors have identified what they believe is misconduct at his family business.

As part of the investigation into the fringe benefits Trump provided, Vance’s prosecutors have sought records for Mercedes-Benz cars leased for Weisselberg, his wife and other Trump Organization employees over the course of more than a decade, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

The full scope of the investigation into Weisselberg, including whether prosecutors are considering other charges against him separate from the fringe benefits, could not be determined. It is rare for prosecutors to build a criminal case solely around a failure to pay taxes on fringe benefits.

Vance’s wider investigation into the Trump Organization has included scrutiny of whether Trump and the company manipulated property values to obtain certain loans and tax benefits, among other potential financial crimes.

A lawyer for Weisselberg, Mary Mulligan, declined to comment, as did a Trump Organization representative. Trump, a Republican, has long lashed out at the investigation, calling it a “continuation of the greatest political Witch Hunt in the history of our country.” A spokesperson for Vance, who has served three terms but is not running for reelection this year, declined to comment.

Before recently convening the special grand jury, Vance’s office was already using other grand juries to issue subpoenas for documents and hear some testimony. The new panel is expected to hear from a wide range of witnesses in the coming months and, if prosecutors present charges, could vote on indictments. Still, there is no indication that the inquiry into Trump has reached that advanced stage, or even that prosecutors have decided to seek charges against the former president or his company.

The New York state attorney general, Letitia James, who had been conducting a civil examination of some of the same issues that the district attorney’s criminal investigation is examining, has joined Vance’s inquiry. She, too, has obtained Weisselberg’s tax returns, people with knowledge of the matter said.

While pursuing Weisselberg’s cooperation, Vance’s prosecutors appeared to be building a picture of his financial life, securing earlier this year not only his tax returns and the underlying documents but also his personal bank records. They also asked the Trump Organization to turn over documents related to any benefits Trump or the company may have provided to other employees.

The investigation has led the prosecutors to subpoena the records of Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, an Upper West Side private school, seeking information about tuition payments Trump made on behalf of at least one of Weisselberg’s grandchildren.

Prosecutors additionally questioned Weisselberg’s former daughter-in-law, Jennifer Weisselberg, who is in the midst of a contentious custody battle with her ex-husband, Barry. Her lawyer, Duncan Levin, has said she has been interviewed six times and is cooperating with the investigation.

Jennifer Weisselberg has said that prosecutors had asked her about the tuition payments as well as gifts Barry Weisselberg received from Trump, including an apartment on Central Park South and several cars that were leased for him. Barry Weisselberg manages the Trump Wollman Rink in Central Park.

The prosecutors have also focused on whether Trump provided Allen Weisselberg with a Manhattan apartment.

Allen Weisselberg’s lawyers could argue that some of the benefits were not taxable, or that Weisselberg did not know he needed to pay taxes on them. The rules around tuition, for example, are somewhat open to interpretation.

If prosecutors eventually seek charges against Weisselberg based on the fringe benefits, depending on what the evidence shows, they could choose from several potential crimes, including grand larceny, scheme to defraud or tax fraud, experts said.

To prove scheme to defraud, Vance’s prosecutors would need to show that Weisselberg engaged in a “systematic ongoing course of conduct with intent to defraud.” To prove he committed tax fraud, they would have to show that he willfully failed to pay taxes on the benefits.

With tax fraud, the fallout for Weisselberg would be steeper than under the scheme to defraud charge: Failing to pay more than $10,000 in taxes in a single year can be punishable by up to seven years in prison, while the penalty for scheming to defraud is a maximum of four years.

“Those dollar amounts could make it relatively easy for the Manhattan district attorney to make a criminal case,” said Cono Namorato, a lawyer at Caplin and Drysdale and a former senior official at the Justice Department’s tax division.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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