U.S. prosecutors have portrayed President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, as a tax cheat who used offshore accounts to hide millions of dollars he earned from his political work for the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, in the first trial arising from an investigation into Russian ties to the Trump campaign.
Manafort lived an extravagant lifestyle, snapping up expensive homes and cars, and spending more than half a million dollars on “fancy clothes” and $21,000 for a watch, a prosecutor said in the government’s opening statement at the trial in a U.S. court in the state of Virginia on July 31.
“A man in this courtroom believed the law did not apply to him. Not tax, not banking law,” said Uzo Asonye, a member of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s prosecution team.
In describing the 18 counts facing Manafort, Asonye said that Manafort did not pay taxes on a large portion of the $60 million he earned working for the party of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
He said Manafort hid the income in a web of 30 overseas bank accounts, and lied to U.S. banks to borrow millions of dollars against his real-estate holdings once the money from Ukraine dried up.
“All of these charges boil down to one simple issue: that Paul Manafort lied,” Asonye said.
Manafort’s attorney, Thomas Zehnle, painted a dramatically different portrait of Manafort, calling him a successful political consultant of 40 years who left the day-to-day operations of his company to his former associate, Rick Gates, who betrayed him.
Zehnle made it clear that attacking the credibility of Gates, who pleaded guilty in February and agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation, would be a central plank of the defense.
Gates is expected to be a star witness at the trial.
“Rick Gates had his hand in the cookie jar,” Zehnle said, claiming that Gates was not truthful with the accountants who prepared Manafort’s tax returns and kept his name on offshore accounts to conceal an embezzlement scheme.
“Money’s coming in fast. It’s a lot, and Paul Manafort trusted that Rick Gates was keeping track of it,” Zehnle said. “That’s what Rick Gates was being paid to do.”
Thomas Green, who represents Gates, did not respond to a request for comment on the accusations.