The U.S. government’s star witness in the financial fraud trial of Paul Manafort testified on Monday that he embezzled hundreds of thousands of dollars from the former Trump campaign chairman – and told jurors that he and Mr. Manafort committed crimes together.
Rick Gates has been regarded as a crucial witness for the government ever since he pleaded guilty this year to two felony charges and agreed to co-operate in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.
The hugely anticipated courtroom showdown brought Mr. Gates face-to-face with his long-time business associate and fellow Trump campaign aide. His testimony, given in short, clipped answers as Mr. Manafort rarely broke his gaze from the witness stand, follows that of vendors who detailed Mr. Manafort’s luxurious spending and financial professionals who told jurors how the defendant hid millions of dollars in offshore accounts.
But Mr. Gates, described by witnesses as Mr. Manafort’s “right-hand man,” is expected to provide the most damning testimony about Mr. Manafort’s state of mind as well as his own role in the crimes.
Mr. Gates told jurors that he siphoned off the money without Mr. Manafort’s knowledge by filing false expense reports. He also admitted to concealing millions of dollars in foreign bank accounts on Mr. Manafort’s behalf and to falsifying loan applications and other documents to help Mr. Manafort obtain more in bank loans.
“We didn’t report the income or the foreign bank accounts,” Mr. Gates told jurors, noting that he knew he and Mr. Manafort were committing crimes each time.
Mr. Gates read off the names of more than a dozen shell companies he and Mr. Manafort set up in Cyprus, St. Vincent and the Grenadines and the United Kingdom to stash the proceeds of Mr. Manafort’s Ukrainian political consulting work.
Asked whether the money in the accounts was income to Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates said, “it was.”
Mr. Gates said he repeatedly lied to conceal the bank accounts and, at Mr. Manafort’s direction, he would classify money that came in as either a loan or income to reduce Mr. Manafort’s tax burden.
Mr. Manafort’s defence has sought to blame Mr. Gates for any illegal conduct and cited the embezzlement to impugn Mr. Gates’ credibility.
Mr. Gates, who also served in a senior role in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, is expected to face aggressive cross-examination once prosecutors are finished questioning him. Mr. Gates pleaded guilty to financial fraud and to lying to investigators as he negotiated the plea agreement earlier this year. He is awaiting sentencing.
The criminal case has nothing to do with either man’s work for the Trump campaign and there’s been no discussion during the trial about whether the Trump campaign co-ordinated with Russia – the central question Mr. Mueller’s team has tried to answer. But Mr. Trump has shown interest in the proceedings, tweeting support for Mr. Manafort and suggesting he had been treated worse than gangster Al Capone.
U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, who repeatedly interrupted prosecutors last week as they tried to present evidence about Mr. Manafort’s lavish life such as US$900,000 in expensive suits and a US$15,000 ostrich jacket, clashed again with prosecutor Greg Andres on Monday when Mr. Andres delved into the status and identities of the Eastern Europeans who made payments to Mr. Manafort.
Justice Ellis said all that’s relevant is that Mr. Manafort was paid and whether he hid the income from the IRS.
“It doesn’t matter whether these are good people, bad people, oligarchs, Mafia. ... You don’t need to throw mud at these people,” Justice Ellis said.
Mr. Andres said he was entitled to show the jury why Mr. Manafort was getting tens of millions of dollars in payments.
“When we try to describe the work, Your Honor stops us and tell us to move on,” he said.
Prosecutors say Mr. Manafort used those companies to stash millions of dollars from his Ukrainian consulting work, proceeds he omitted year after year from his income-tax returns. Later, they say, when that income dwindled, Mr. Manafort launched a different scheme, shoring up his struggling finances by using doctored documents to obtain millions more in bank loans.
All told, prosecutors allege that Mr. Manafort failed to report a “significant percentage” of the more than US$60-million they say he received from Ukrainians. They aimed to show jurors how that money flowed from more than a dozen shell companies used to stash the income in Cyprus.
On Friday, a tax preparer named Cindy Laporta admitted that she helped disguise US$900,000 in foreign income as a loan in order to reduce Mr. Manafort’s tax burden. Ms. Laporta, who testified under an immunity deal with the government, acknowledged that she agreed under pressure from Mr. Gates to alter a tax document for one of Mr. Manafort’s businesses.
Under cross-examination on Monday, defence attorney Kevin Downing pressed Ms. Laporta on the complexities of Mr. Manafort’s finances as he worked to paint a picture of a political consultant who left the details to professionals and, in particular, to Mr. Gates.
Mr. Downing also accused Mr. Gates of embezzling “millions,” a higher amount than Mr. Gates later admitted to in his testimony.
Ms. Laporta said she had grown to distrust the information Mr. Gates was providing her, although she didn’t know about the embezzlement.
But she said she believed Mr. Manafort was directing Mr. Gates’ efforts to disguise loans and conceal income, noting that Mr. Manafort was copied on her e-mail traffic with Mr. Gates.
“In most instances, it was clear that Mr. Manafort knew what was going on,” she said.