© Reuters. Former US president Donald Trump speaks during a rally in Robstown, Texas, US, October 22, 2022. REUTERS/Go Nakamura
By Luc Cohen and Karen Freifeld
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Jury selection is due to start on Monday in the tax fraud trial of former US President Donald Trump’s real estate company, with prosecutors in Manhattan accusing the business of defrauding tax authorities by awarding “off the books” benefits to company executives.
The criminal trial in a New York state court is one of a mounting number of legal woes for Trump as he considers another run for the presidency in 2024. The Manhattan district attorney’s office charged the Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg, its then-chief financial officer , in July 2021.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August to 15 charges, which included grand larceny and tax fraud, and admitted concealing $1.76 million in income in an agreement with prosecutors that requires him to testify at this trial.
The Trump Organization, which operates hotels, golf courses and other real estate around the world, could face up to $1.6 million in fines for the three tax fraud counts and six other counts it faces.
Trump, who was not charged in the case, faces other legal troubles including a federal criminal investigation into the removal of government documents from the White House when he left office last year.
The jury selection process is due to kick off on Monday, with Justice Juan Merchan presiding. Lawyers from both sides will have the opportunity to question prospective jurors, who may be asked about their personal views on Trump, a Republican businessman-turned-politician who first achieved fame decades ago in the most-populous US city, and whether they can decide the case impartially. The city is heavily Democratic.
Prosecutors accused the company of engaging in a sweeping tax fraud over a period of 15 years starting in 2005. They have accused the company of allowing certain employees to understate their taxable compensation, enabling it to evade payroll taxes.
Lawyers for the Trump Organization have called the case a “selective prosecution” based on animosity by the prosecution towards Trump for his political views, although the judge overseeing it has rejected that argument. Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and his predecessor who started the investigation, Cyrus Vance, are Democrats.
Two prosecutors who had been leading the investigation resigned in February, with one saying that felony charges should be brought against Trump but that Bragg indicated he had doubts. Weisselberg, who worked at the company for five decades, has said he was charged because he would not turn on his longtime boss. Merchan rejected that argument in an August decision to let the case proceed.
The criminal case is separate from the civil fraud lawsuit filed in September by New York state Attorney General Letitia James against the Trump Organization, Trump and three of his adult children, accusing them of overstating asset values and his net worth to get favorable bank loans and insurance coverage.
Trump has called the suit by James, a Democrat, as well as the charges pursued by Bragg politically motivated.
Weisselberg’s plea agreement stated that he evaded paying taxes on unreported income from the Trump Organization in the form of benefits including rent payments for a Manhattan apartment, multiple Mercedes Benz automobiles, private school tuition for his grandchildren and cash and furnishings for his apartment and home in Florida.
The plea agreement calls for Weisselberg to serve five months in jail.
Weisselberg avoided $900,000 in taxes by failing to declare the perks as income and collected $133,000 in refunds he did not deserve, prosecutors said. Two other Trump Organization employees received compensation in the form of lodging and car leases, prosecutors added.