Manafort trial moves to defence as U.S. prosecutors wrap up

FILE PHOTO: Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort arrives for arraignment on a third superseding indictment against him by Special Counsel Robert Mueller on charges of witness tampering, at U.S. District Court in Washington, U.S., June 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst/File Photo

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors on Monday rested their case against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort after 10 days of testimony alleging how he evaded taxes and defrauded banks, with the defence set to decide on Tuesday if it will call any witnesses.

As its final witness on Monday, the prosecution recalled a Treasury Department agent who testified that Manafort’s consulting companies did not disclose their foreign bank accounts, as is required by law, in addition to him failing to do so personally.

“The government rests,” U.S. prosecutor Greg Andres said after the agent completed her testimony.

Judge T.S. Ellis said he would talk to Manafort on Tuesday about whether he wanted to take the stand, something that legal experts say is highly unlikely.

Manafort’s lawyers will also tell the court on Tuesday whether they plan to call any witnesses.

If the defence rests, closing statements would be next, after which the 12-person jury will begin deliberations.

Manafort is being tried on 18 counts, which include tax and bank fraud charges, as well the failure to disclose foreign bank accounts. If found guilty on all charges, he could face eight to 10 years in prison, according to sentencing expert Justin Paperny.

The trial is the first courtroom test for U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who indicted Manafort in October 2017 as part of his probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.

Manafort’s lawyers on Monday asked for the charges to be thrown out, claiming that the prosecution failed to show the necessary willfulness to break the law.

Dan Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who attended the proceedings, called the action by Manafort’s lawyers “pro-forma”, adding, “very rarely are they successful.”

During the trial, more than two dozen witnesses took the stand and portrayed Manafort, 69, as a lavish spender with little regard for the law. As a political consultant for pro-Kremlin politicians in the Ukraine, Manafort earned some $60 million between 2010 and 2014.

Stashing the money in 31 offshore bank accounts, he skirted taxes by wiring it directly to vendors to snap up real estate and luxury goods, the witnesses said.

The trappings of Manafort’s lifestyle dominated media headlines throughout the trial: there was half a million dollars worth of antique rugs, $750,000 spent on landscaping for his $13 million Bridgehampton mansion, and more than $1 million for clothing, including a $15,000 jacket made of ostrich skin.

SEALED MOTION

Ellis closed the courtroom at the end of the day to hear arguments on a sealed motion that was filed earlier in the day.

While the contents of the motion are unknown, the development comes after an unexplained delay in the trial and unusually detailed instructions by Ellis to the jurors on Friday, in which he pressed them not to talk to anyone about the case.

The judge’s comments sparked speculation by legal experts and courtroom observers that the delay could be related to some form of juror misconduct. Ellis resumed testimony mid-afternoon on Friday with no changes to the jury.

“The fact that the judge resumed proceedings but gave a strong admonishment to the jury tells me that a juror issue arose but that level of misconduct was not significant enough to warrant a mistrial,” said jury consultant Alexandra Rudolph.

The prosecution also called James Brennan to the stand on Monday. Brenann is an executive at Federal Savings Bank, which extended $16 million in loans to Manafort on his Hamptons estate and a Brooklyn brownstone house in late 2016 and early 2017.

Brennan said bank president Javier Ubarri made an initial decision to reject a $9.5 million loan on Manafort’s Hamptons estate, but bank chief executive Steve Calk overruled it. “It closed because Mr. Calk wanted it to close,” Brennan said about the loan.

On Friday, another Federal employee testified that Calk personally approved loans to Manafort while seeking Manafort’s help getting a job in President Donald Trump’s campaign and his cabinet.

Federal Savings Bank has not returned calls seeking comment, and has said it will make no comment during Manafort’s trial.

Brennan, asked about whether the bank made money from lending to Manafort, said the bank has written off the loans and “took a hit” of $11.8 million.

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