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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Prosecution set to wrap up case against Manafort

Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort at U.S. District Court in Washington. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

U.S. prosecutors on Monday plan to wrap up their tax and bank fraud case against former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort, making it likely the case will go to the jury by midweek if the defense decides not to call any witnesses.

The trial is in its 10th day in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, and is scheduled to resume Monday afternoon. The case arose from U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Before completing their case, prosecutors will call James Brennan, an executive at the Federal Savings Bank. On Friday, a former salesman at Federal testified the bank’s chief executive, Steve Calk, personally approved $16 million in loans to Manafort while seeking Manafort’s help getting a job in President Donald Trump’s campaign and ultimately his cabinet.

In a brief on Monday, prosecutors said they expected another Federal official to testify that he relied on an altered profit and loss statement for Manafort’s consulting company, DMP International LLC, and a falsified letter about a debt to the New York Yankees for season tickets in reviewing the loans.

While they did not name the official, Brennan is the only Federal executive left on the witness list.

The prosecution also wants to recall Paula Liss, an agent with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. The defense is seeking to block further questioning of her and the judge has not yet ruled. Liss testified last week that Manafort did not disclose his foreign bank accounts.

Manafort’s lawyers then will face a choice: call their own witnesses or hope the prosecution’s case is not strong enough to outweigh defense attacks on the credibility of former Manafort associate Rick Gates and the testimony of more than two dozen other witnesses.

Gates testified last week that Manafort directed him to help commit the tax and bank frauds while the defense portrayed him as living a “secret life” of infidelity and embezzlement.

Prosecutors contend Manafort hid a significant portion of the approximately $60 million he earned as a consultant for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, then lied to borrow millions more in a bid to maintain an extravagant lifestyle when the Ukraine work dried up.

Shanlon Wu, who represented Gates before he pleaded guilty in February and started cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, said he expected the defense to rest its case and move on to closing arguments.

While the prosecution has built a solid case, Manafort’s lawyers appeared to have raised some doubts about the testimony of Gates and other witnesses, Wu said.

“The big question is, did the government do enough to show willfulness,” said Wu, who is no longer involved in the case and said he was speaking from knowledge of the publicly available evidence.

If the defense decides not to call any witnesses, the court may on Monday hold a conference with the lawyers to decide what instructions should be given to the jury before they begin deliberations, Judge T.S. Ellis said on Friday.

Closing arguments may take place on Tuesday. Ellis ordered each side to limit its summation to two hours.

It was unclear if Ellis will make public the reason behind an unexpected recess on Friday that lasted into the mid-afternoon and included a lengthy discussion with the lawyers and judge at the bench, the contents of which remain under seal.

Some legal experts have speculated that it may have been triggered by a problem with the jury after Ellis reminded jurors in unusual detail and multiple times about the defendant’s presumed innocence, the need to “keep an open mind” about the trial and not to talk to anyone about the case.

“My sense is that it probably has to do with juror misconduct,” said Joshua Dressler, a law professor at Ohio State. But it was not likely severe enough to prompt the judge to declare a mistrial, he said, noting Ellis resumed witness testimony on Friday afternoon.

A motion and related memorandum were filed under seal on Monday morning. No details were immediately available.

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