Former President Trump’s new legal nightmare just took a turn for the worse.
State prosecutors in New York slapped both his family company, the Trump Organization, and its longtime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, with 15 felony counts on Thursday. Legal experts say it’s a move that will raise pressure on the 73-year-old financier to cooperate with investigators and provide evidence against Trump.
Weisselberg pleaded not guilty in an appearance in a Manhattan courtroom Thursday afternoon to charges that include a scheme to defraud, tax fraud, larceny, and conspiracy. The Trump Organization also pleaded not guilty.
The charges carry the potential for years in prison, although so far Weisselberg has shown little sign of cracking under the pressure.
“The fact that he was charged with conspiracy indicates that he faces years, not months, in prison if convicted,” said Jens David Ohlin, vice dean of Cornell Law School. “Does that mean he will cooperate with New York prosecutors to spare himself? Maybe or maybe not. Self-interest and loyalty are two opposing forces, and both can be powerful.”
Trump was not personally named in the charges.
"This was a 15-year-long tax fraud scheme," Carey Dunne, general counsel for the Manhattan DA's office, told the court on Thursday. "It was orchestrated by the most senior executives."
In the indictment, which was unsealed Thursday, prosecutors accused the defendants of engaging in a scheme to compensate Weisselberg and other Trump Organization executives “in a manner that was ‘off the books.’”
The scheme allegedly involved channeling a substantial portion of some Trump Organization employees’ income in ways that were intended to be disguised from tax officials, allowing them to “substantially understate their compensation from the Trump Organization,” prosecutors wrote.
Weisselberg, who has worked for the Trump family since the 1970s, was “one of the largest individual beneficiaries of the defendants’ scheme,” prosecutors said, putting his indirect compensation at about $1.76 million.
The company allegedly paid for Weisselberg’s rent, utilities, and garage expenses at a Riverside Boulevard apartment in Manhattan, along with tuition at an expensive private school for Weisselberg’s relatives. The company also allegedly covered the cost of two Mercedes-Benzs for Weisselberg and his wife, and slipped Weisselberg cash for what prosecutors called “personal holiday gratuities.”
“To put it bluntly, this was a sweeping and audacious illegal payments scheme,” Dunne told the court.
The indictment puts Trump in greater criminal jeopardy than ever before, and raises the possibility that prosecutors might later seek to expand the case by alleging that more Trump Organization employees were involved in the scheme. For example, the document includes reference to actions taken by an unnamed “Unindicted Coconspirator #1,” who prosecutors said played a role in underreporting Weisselberg’s taxable income for the year 2009.
Trump has repeatedly denied wrongdoing and blasted the investigation as a witch hunt.
Just as the document was being released, Trump released an emailed statement attacking the prosecutors.
“The political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats, with New York now taking over the assignment, continues!,” Trump wrote. “It is dividing our Country like never before!”
On Thursday, the Manhattan DA’s office pushed back against the idea that the case arose out of political bias.
“Politics has no role in the grand jury chamber, and I can assure your honor that it played no role here,” Dunne told the judge. “Contrary to the defense assertions, there’s no clearer example of a company that should be held to criminal account.”
Weisselberg’s lawyers, Mary Mulligan and Bryan Skarlatos, released a brief statement before the arraignment saying that their client “will fight these charges in court.”
The Trump Organization released a statement saying Weisselberg is being used as a “pawn in a scorched-earth attempt to harm the former president.”
“The district attorney is bringing a criminal prosecution involving employee benefits that neither the IRS nor any other district attorney would ever think of bringing,” the company said. “This is not justice; this is politics.”