ALEXANDRIA, Va. - Paul Manafort orchestrated a multimillion-dollar conspiracy to evade U.S. tax and banking laws, leaving behind a trail of lies as he lived a lavish lifestyle, prosecutors said Tuesday as they laid out their case against the former Trump campaign chairman.
During his opening statement, Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye told the jury that Manafort, a New Britain native, considered himself above the law as he funneled tens of millions of dollars through offshore accounts.
That “secret income” was used to pay for personal expenses such as a $21,000 watch, a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich and more than $6 million worth of real estate paid for in cash, Asonye said.
“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him - not tax law, not banking law,” Asonye said as he sketched out the evidence gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in Manafort’s bank fraud and tax evasion trial.
The government intends to show that Manafort funneled more than $60 million in proceeds from his Ukrainian political consulting through offshore accounts and hid a “significant” portion of it from the IRS.
Manafort’s attorney Thomas Zenhle contended in the defense’s opening statement that his client never intended to deceive U.S. authorities about his income or his foreign bank accounts.
Zehnle said Manafort trusted others to keep track of the millions of dollars he was earning from his Ukrainian political work.
He said that Manafort had especially relied on Rick Gates, his business associate and now the prosecution’s star witness, but that that trust was misplaced. He warned jurors not to believe Gates when he testifies against Manafort later in the trial.
Manafort, who has been jailed for nearly two months, wore a black suit and appeared fully engaged in his defense, whispering with his attorneys during jury selection and scribbling notes as the prosecution began its opening statement.
Asonye said Manafort created “bogus” loans, falsified documents and lied to his tax preparer and bookkeeper to conceal the money, which he obtained from Ukrainian oligarchs through a series of shell company transfers and later from fraudulently obtained bank loans in the U.S.
The trial is expected to last several weeks. Testimony is likely to begin Tuesday afternoon.
It’s the first trial arising from Mueller’s investigation into potential ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Mueller was not present in the courtroom Tuesday.
While prosecutors are not expected to address the question of possible collusion between Trump and Russia, Manafort’s case is widely viewed as a test to the legitimacy of Mueller’s ongoing probe, which Trump has dismissed as a “witch hunt.”
Prosecutors have lined up 35 witnesses and more than 500 pieces of evidence they say will show how Manafort earned more than $60 million from his Ukrainian work and then concealed a “significant percentage” of that money from the IRS. Prosecutors will also argue that Manafort fraudulently obtained millions more in bank loans, including during his time on the campaign.
A jury of six men and six women was selected earlier Tuesday, along with four alternate jurors.
At the center of much of the trial will be Gates, another Trump campaign aide who spent years working for Manafort in Ukraine and is also accused of helping him falsify paperwork used to obtain the bank loans.
Gates, who cut a plea deal with Mueller earlier this year, is also expected to play a key role in Manafort’s second trial, scheduled for September.
That trial, set in the District of Columbia, involves allegations that the longtime political consultant acted as an unregistered foreign agent for Ukrainian interests and made false statements to the U.S. government.
The other 31 people charged by Mueller so far have either pleaded guilty or are Russians seen as unlikely to enter an American courtroom. Three Russian companies have also been charged.