NEW YORK – The criminal tax fraud trial of two companies in former President Donald Trump's business empire neared a close Thursday after defense lawyers attacked Allen Weisselberg, Trump's former top financial lieutenant, and a prosecutor told the jury Trump "knew exactly" what was going on with the companies.
In clashing closing arguments, the two sides focused on whether there was sufficient evidence that Weisselberg intended to provide some benefit to the Trump Corporation and Trump Payroll Corporation as he evaded taxes in a long-running scheme.
That question of intent, which is required for convictions of the companies under New York law, is expected to be at the heart of the jury deliberations scheduled to begin Monday.
Echoing the opening defense statements just over a month ago, Susan Necheles, the attorney for the Trump Corporation, told jurors: "We are here today for one reason and one reason only: the greed of Allen Weisselberg."
No one from the Trump family knew about Weisselberg's "effort to evade taxes," an alleged scheme in which he acted "solely to benefit himself," Necheles said.
She also told the eight-man, four-woman jury to focus on legal instructions they will receive about a section of the New York state penal law that outlines circumstances needed to find a corporation guilty of committing a crime.
In this case, the law requires that prosecutors prove through trial evidence that Weisseberg – Trump's former chief financial officer – and/or Trump Organization controller Jeffrey McConney committed tax fraud crimes while acting within the scope of their jobs and "in behalf of the corporation."
What does that mean?
"It requires the people to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the high-ranking officer acted with some intent to benefit the corporation," Necheles said. "You are going to see there was no such intent. The purpose of Mr. Weisselberg's crimes was to benefit himself."
Necheles was followed by Michael van der Veen, an attorney for the Trump Payroll Corporation, the other company on trial. He, too, attacked the prosecution's star witness, loudly declaring: "Weisselberg did it for Weisselberg."
It's not enough for prosecutors to show that the disgraced executive cheated on his taxes by failing to declare off-the-books company perks as income and getting an unmerited paycheck from Trump's firm for his wife so she could qualify for Social Security benefits," van der Veen told jurors.
The government also must show an intent to provide some benefit for the Trump firms "and the evidence is there was no intention of benefit for the Trump Payroll Corporation," van der Veen said.
Joshua Steinglass, a Manhattan assistant district attorney, delivered a contrasting argument as he began the prosecution's closing arguments. He told jurors that a "tremendous amount of evidence" introduced during trial showed Weisselberg "intended to benefit the companies, and that is enough" to justify convictions.
The companies' culture enabled Weisselberg to evade taxes with virtual impunity, said Steinglass. The disgraced executive had a willing co-schemer in McConney, who grudgingly testified for the government under a grant of immunity from prosecution, Steinglass said.
The two men cooperated in a scheme that let Weisselberg and another top executive lower their salaries, and then use the savings to cover company-paid perks with pre-tax dollars, trial evidence showed.
"It's was a win-win. Getting cash into executives' pockets and keeping (payroll) costs low," argued Steinglass.
The only losers were federal, state, and city tax agencies, he added.
A guilty verdict could hit the companies with up to an estimated $1.6 million in criminal penalties and tar the reputation of Trump's namesake firms with a conviction.
The case arises from a July 2021 indictment that accused Weisselberg of participating in a more than decade-long tax fraud scheme that benefited top executives while producing financial benefits for the companies. Weisselberg is no longer CFO of the Trump Organization, though he is employed by the Trump business empire.
The alleged crimes included untaxed perks that enabled Weisselberg and other top Trump executives to get company-paid Manhattan apartments and luxury cars, which they did not report as income. They also received thousands of dollars in tax-free payments.
Trump was not charged in the case, and he did not appear in court during the trial. However, he criticized the prosecution in a Thanksgiving week posting on Truth Social. The ending phase of the trial comes just weeks after Trump announced he is running for president again in 2024 and amid a flurry of other developments in civil and criminal matters involving Trump.
The closing arguments by defense lawyers included statements that Trump knew nothing about the alleged scheme, an apparent effort to distance him from the case. Acting Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Juan Merchan ruled those statements opened the door for Steinglass to address the issue when the trial resumes on Friday.
Despite denials by the former president, Trump knew what was going on among his top executives, argued Steinglass, who suggested he would elaborate later.
Weisselberg pleaded guilty in August to all 15 charges against him as part of an agreement with prosecutors. He admitted he concealed $1.76 million in income through the alleged scheme. The deal is expected to enable Weisselberg to serve roughly 100 days in jail, far less than the maximum 15-year prison term he could have faced.
That made Weisselberg the trial's focal point. He was the star witness for the Manhattan District Attorney's Office. And he was the chief target of attack for the Trump companies' legal teams.
Weisselberg, 75, helped both sides score points.
Still receiving his six-figure salary on a paid leave from the Trump Organization, he testified under cross-examination by defense lawyers that he'd acted out of his own greed, seeking pre-tax dollars. The defense characterized his conduct as a Weisselberg plot that was hidden from the companies.
In one of the trial's most dramatic moments, defense lawyer Alan Futerfas noted that Weisselberg had worked for the Trump family for nearly 50 years, becoming the most trusted person in the organization who lacked the Trump surname.
"Mr. Weisselberg, did you honor the trust that was placed in you?" Futerfas asked.
Weisselberg admitted he had not.
"And you did it for your own personal gain?" the defense lawyer asked.
"I did," said Weisselberg, who appeared to fight back tears.
But during direct examination by prosecutor Susan Hoffinger, Weisselberg acknowledged that the companies had received some benefit from the alleged tax scheme.
Reducing his salary to cover some tax-free perks paid by the company benefited him – but also produced lower payroll costs, as well as savings in the Medicare portion of payroll taxes that are paid by employers, Weisselberg testified.
Steinglass highlighted that evidence in his closing argument.
"The Trump Corporation paid less to their people. How about that for a benefit?" asked the prosecutor. "You can pay your people less if you let them evade taxes."
The jury also will have to make decisions about other issues, including McConney's role. During his testimony, he described himself as a non-manager who simply followed instructions from Weisselberg, who was his boss.
"Who was I going to tell?' McConney testified, adding that he feared losing his job if he spoke out.
Steinglass ridiculed that self-portrait as he addressed jurors. He highlighted a secret financial log that McConney used to keep track of salary reductions requested by Weisselberg and others and corresponding company-paid perks.
The log amounted to a second set of books, one for the IRS, another for the companies, he said. McConney wasn't a low-level company soldier, "he was a co-conspirator," argued Steinglass.
►Trump's latest legal challenges?: Special counsel, new suit over alleged assault and more
►E. Jean Carroll: Trump faces new lawsuit alleging battery
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Closing arguments in criminal tax fraud trial turn to Trump