‘Next phase’ of criminal investigation into Trump’s finances: finding witnesses

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(Reuters) – Investigators in a criminal investigation into former US President Donald Trump’s real estate activity scan millions of pages of newly acquired documents in a bid to identify witnesses who can bring documents to life for a jury , say two familiar people. with the probe.

FILE PHOTO: Michael Cohen, former lawyer for former US President Donald Trump, walks out of his apartment in the Manhattan neighborhood of New York City, New York, United States, March 10, 2021. REUTERS / Carlo Allegri

Some of the key figures in the case are well known. Former Trump attorney and fixer Michael Cohen met with prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office on Friday in his eighth interview. And the team of District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr is seeking testimony from longtime Trump organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, according to the two people familiar with the investigation.

But a growing universe of people, institutions and agencies are being examined by Vance prosecutors as potential witnesses in the case.

Prosecutors are seeking to gather information and testimony from bankers, accountants, real estate consultants and others close to the Trump organization who could provide information about its transactions, according to interviews and court documents. The process of identifying all witnesses and targets could take months.

“The next phase is to identify the targets” for the subpoenas and testimony, said a person familiar with the case.

Vance has not accused Trump or his associates of wrongdoing, but examines, among other things, whether property values ​​have been manipulated to reduce Trump’s taxes or obtain other economic benefits. The case is heard by a grand jury which will decide whether there is any evidence to indict Trump or his associates.

Vance investigators need insiders who can provide the tale of any conflicting numbers on Trump’s financial records and testify to Trump’s knowledge and intent, former prosecutors in the fraud cases said in White collar.

“Even in the most document-heavy case, you need witnesses to tell the story,” said Reed Brodsky, a longtime white-collar defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor.

The Supreme Court forced longtime Trump accountants Mazars USA to comply with a March 1 subpoena. Since then, investigators have scoured Trump’s tax returns, business documents and internal correspondence, looking for discrepancies between information provided to creditors and data provided to tax authorities, said two people familiar with the probe.

FTI Consulting Inc’s forensic specialists, retained by Vance, help analyze tax records, a knowledgeable source said.

Vance’s investigation is one of two known criminal investigations to the former president. Reuters has identified four other ongoing investigations involving Trump and at least 17 pending prosecutions.

A lawyer for Trump declined to comment on the inquiries.

In Vance’s investigation, Mark Pomerantz, a former federal prosecutor hired as a special assistant last month, is conducting the interviews with some witnesses. Pomerantz, 69, pursued the son of the head of the Gambino family, John Gotti, in the 1990s and is known for his expertise in white collar crime.

ACCOUNTANTS, APPRAISERS

Several potential figures from Vance’s investigation are current or former employees of outside companies – from financial and real estate consultants to legal advisers – with in-depth knowledge of Trump’s transactions, according to court documents and both people familiar with the investigation. .

Some have played crucial roles for many years, such as Mazars accountant Donald Bender. His signature is on the income tax returns of the Donald J. Trump Foundation, which was dissolved in 2018 after an investigation by the New York attorney general found that the organization had abused charitable funds. Trump was ordered to pay more than $ 2 million in damages.

Bender led Trump’s account management team at Mazars for more than a decade, according to court records. He has worked for Mazars since 1981 and helps steer his real estate practice. Mazars predecessor companies began working for Trump’s father, Fred, in the 1950s.

Bender was the only Mazars accountant identified by name in Vance’s subpoena to search for documents between 2011 and 2018, including “all communications” between Donald Bender and any representative of Trump’s companies.

Illustrating Bender’s importance to Trump’s empire, Weisselberg testified in 2008 that when Trump met with representatives from Forbes magazine to discuss his net worth, Weisselberg made sure Bender was there to answer questions.

Bender and Mazars did not respond to requests for comment.

Real estate brokerage Cushman & Wakefield Plc, which worked for the Trump organization for many years, could also feature prominently in Vance’s investigation, according to legal experts. Chicago-based Cushman was subpoenaed as part of a separate New York State Attorney General investigation into Trump’s company, and Cushman’s staff testified under oath.

Both polls showed keen interest in the values ​​Trump attached to conservation easements – agreements to preserve open space on his properties in return for tax breaks, court records show.

Based on a Cushman appraisal, Trump claimed $ 21.1 million worth for an easement on his Seven Springs estate in upstate New York, based on lost profits from luxury homes he could have built. Cushman was also the appraiser of a $ 25 million easement on a Trump golf course in Los Angeles that was reviewed as part of the attorney general’s investigation.

Cushman did not respond to a request for comment.

Vance investigators also requested records and spoke with officials from Trump’s two largest creditors, Deutsche Bank AG and Ladder Capital Corp, Reuters previously reported. Both companies declined to comment.

INSIDERS

Vance’s investigation will likely lean heavily on Trump’s closest associates – people who can answer the key question of what Trump was thinking when he made the financial statements now under scrutiny. Only a select group of Trump confidants can answer this question of state of mind, which is central to proving criminal intent.

Among them is Weisselberg, 73, who started working for Trump’s father, Fred, in 1973. Legal experts and a source close to the investigation say prosecutors’ apparent goal is to convince Weisselberg to cooperate. Weisselberg’s adult sons – one who worked for the Trump organization – are also under surveillance. The other son worked for Ladder Capital, although there is no evidence that he was involved in Ladder’s loans to Trump.

Vance did not say whether prosecutors were speaking with Allen Weisselberg or his sons. None of the three Weisselbergs have been charged with wrongdoing. An attorney for Allen Weisselberg declined to comment.

Jennifer Weisselberg – the former wife of Allen’s eldest son Barry Weisselberg – told Reuters she had spoken with Vance’s office five times since November. The day after the first interview, she said, AD investigators visited her to collect tax and financial records for her and her ex-husband.

She acknowledged that prosecutors have expressed interest in an apartment in a Trump-owned apartment building where she and her ex-husband have lived rent-free for seven years – an arrangement that could have legal implications if it were. compensation not correctly declared in tax returns.

Barry Weisselberg managed an ice rink that Trump operates in Central Park. A lawyer representing him did not respond to a request for comment.

Jennifer Weisselberg said she believed her stepfather would never willingly testify against Trump. She considers Allen Weisselberg to turn around only if he or his sons face legal action. But no one, she said, knows more about Trump’s finances.

The most visible cooperator in the criminal investigation is Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer for nearly a decade. He is serving a three-year sentence after pleading guilty in 2018 to crimes such as tax evasion, orchestrating “silence” payments to two women who said they had relations with Trump, and lied to Congress about the negotiations on a Trump Moscow development plan that never materialized. Cohen is housebound due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump attacked Cohen’s credibility by pointing out how he lied under oath. Legal experts say Trump’s lawyers could make similar arguments if Cohen becomes a key witness. Upon his conviction, Cohen took “full responsibility” for his actions, but claimed he made the payments to Trump’s leadership.

Cohen told Reuters he has evidence to overcome any questions about his credibility. “Unfortunately for Trump, I supported every question asked by the district attorney’s office,” Cohen said, providing “documentary evidence”.

If prosecutors can corroborate Cohen’s testimony, his story could be “very powerful in front of a jury,” said Brodsky, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. “The government likes people who plead guilty to crimes, stand up and say… ‘I participated in a crime with this person sitting right there at the defense table, Donald J. Trump.’”

Reporting by Jason Szep and Peter Eisler; edited by Brian Thevenot



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