The second week of the tax evasion and bank fraud trial of Paul Manafort kicked off Monday.
The day featured the defense’s cross-examination of Cindy Laporta, the onetime Trump campaign chairman’s former accountant and tax preparer; testimony from a Treasury Department employee who researched whether Manafort had filed reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, or FBARs; and Manafort’s former deputy, Rick Gates.
The high-powered political consultant is facing 18 counts and a maximum 305-year prison sentence if the Eastern Virginia jury finds him guilty.
Here are the three biggest takeaways from the first day of the trial’s second week:
1. Rick Gates has arrived — but Tuesday is the main event
The government called Gates, its star witness, to the stand Monday, just five days into what prosecutors originally expected would be a three-week trial.
Gates faces five to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty in February to one count of conspiracy against the United States and one count of lying to an FBI agent. As part of his plea agreement, he has cooperated with prosecutors and is testifying against Manafort.
In just a little over an hour of questioning, Gates told the prosecution that Manafort directed him to open up accounts in Cyprus so that the Ukrainian politicians who paid Manafort’s DMP International consulting firm for its campaign work could funnel millions of dollars to him.
Gates and Manafort purposely lied to Manafort’s accountants, telling them he had no foreign accounts or interests, Gates said.
Manafort also told him to wire some of his political consulting income to his bank accounts in the United States, Gates added. But instead of classifying those payments as “income,” Gates and Manafort told his accountants and his bookkeeper, Heather Washkuhn, that the payments were actually “loans” in order to avoid $15 million in taxes over roughly a decade.
Gates also copped to inflating Manafort’s income in doctored financial statements he provided to banks where Manafort was applying for loans once DMP’s revenue stream from Ukraine dried up in 2014.
Gates and Manafort knew all of these actions were illegal, Gates said.
Gates, frequently pictured with a thick lumberjack beard at the height of his political power alongside Manafort, entered the courtroom at 4:15 p.m. Monday, clean-shaven and wearing a dark suit and gold tie.
Not once did he let his eyes wander to the defense table, where Manafort sat, arms crossed, staring at his former protégé as he testified against him.
“Were you engaged in criminal activity during your time working for Mr. Manafort?” U.S. Attorney Greg Andres asked Gates.
“Yes,” he said.
“Did you commit any crimes with Mr. Manafort?”
The prosecution did not cover much substantial ground Monday on its exhibit list with Gates before Judge T.S. Ellis III adjourned court for the day.
Andres sought to establish Gates’ credibility as a witness by outlining his plea agreement with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation and the protections he would forfeit if he lied during his testimony.
Gates’ potential sentence would dramatically increase, the jury was told, if he was untruthful on the witness stand.
Prosecutors have not even cracked into the 23 emails between just Manafort and Gates that have been entered into the potential evidence list.
Andres told the judge that he expects to question Gates for two more hours when the trial is gaveled in again Tuesday.
2. Manafort’s Hail Mary: the grand Gates embezzlement theory
Manafort’s lawyers doubled down Monday on their main line of defense: that Manafort placed too much trust in Gates, who abused that trust by putting Manafort’s money in legally compromising environs and embezzled gobs of cash from him.
That second part is true — kind of.
Gates did embezzle money from Manafort by adding money to expense reports and creating fake expense reports altogether, he admitted Monday.
But he only did that to the tune of “approximately several hundred thousand dollars,” he said.
That’s but a drop in the ocean of the roughly $30 million prosecutors are claiming Manafort hid from the IRS.
Kevin Downing, the lead attorney on Manafort’s defense team, tried to chip away at Gates’ credibility Monday as he cross-examined Laporta, an accountant for the CPA firm KWC, who prepared Manafort’s taxes in 2014 and 2015.
In one exchange, Downing questioned Laporta about her communications with Gates regarding a bank loan Manafort wanted to apply for in 2015.
Manafort claimed that one of his clients overseas owed him $2.4 million, and he wanted that amount added to the income he would report to the bank on his loan application to improve his chances of getting it approved.
Laporta thought that was odd, so she asked Gates for information about the $2.4 million Manafort was supposedly owed.
Gates didn’t respond to any of her emails asking for documents, contracts, and other communications about the alleged forthcoming payment.
Downing offered, without any substantial evidence to back up his claim, that Gates’ actions should have raised a “red flag” for Laporta that he could be embezzling money from Manafort.
“If at the time you learned Mr. Gates was embezzling millions of dollars from Mr. Manafort, would you have picked up the phone to Mr. Manafort?” Downing asked.
U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye’s objected to the question, saying it was pure speculation. Ellis overruled the objection.
“Yes,” Laporta said, “of course” she would call Manafort if she suspected Gates was enriching himself with Manafort’s money. But she noted that she couldn’t imagine a scenario where she would have learned Gates was doing that.
Laporta also said Manafort was copied on several emails she sent to Gates regarding her concerns — but she did not consider calling Manafort directly because it appeared he was largely aware of what was happening.
3. We heard from our first summary witness Monday — expect more
For its second witness Monday, the prosecution called upon Paula Liss, a certified fraud examiner, anti-money laundering specialist, and senior special agent for the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN.
Liss’s testimony lasted less than 45 minutes, the shortest of any witness so far this trial.
That’s because she was what’s called a “summary witness,” which is a person, usually a government official, who is called to testify about facts and records they have tracked down.
Mueller’s team asked Liss last year to search for any reports of foreign bank and financial accounts, or FBARs, from Manafort or his wife Kathleen.
“There were no FBARs in FinCEN’s system of record,” Liss said, indicating that Manafort and his tax preparers did not disclose any of the more than 30 bank accounts owned by his offshore shell companies to the IRS on his tax returns.
If someone has foreign bank accounts, companies, or interests, that person often must disclose those interests in FBARs to the Treasury Department in addition to their tax returns.
In cross-examining Liss, one of Manafort’s lawyers, Thomas Zehnle, argued that Manafort was required to file FBARs for his companies only if he owned more than 50 percent of them. If his share in the companies was 50 percent or less, he was off the hook.
But ownership of an account can include “indirect ownership,” Liss noted.
A former Justice Department attorney with experience prosecuting similar cases told Roll Call that the prosecution will most likely call another summary witness toward the trial’s conclusion to testify about evidence that shows Manafort opened more than 30 accounts in four different countries under his name, including shell companies that sent Manafort and Gates the money that they classified as “loans.”
“All they have left to show — and an agent can do this — is who had authority to make transactions from those foreign accounts,” the former DOJ attorney said.
And if Manafort did indeed open those accounts, that inherently means he knew they existed — and that he failed to report them to his tax preparers.
Watch: What I Learned From 4 Days Covering the Manafort Trial