ALEXANDRIA, Va. (CN) – Cindy Laporta, an accountant who is the first witness granted immunity by prosecutors to testify against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, admitted Friday that she filed tax returns she knew contained false information supplied to her by Manafort and his former business associate, Rick Gates.
“You can’t pick and choose what’s a loan and what’s income,” she told jurors on the fourth day of Manafort’s trial. “I very much regret it.”
Laporta took over Manafort’s account in 2014 from a colleague, Philip Ayliff, after he retired their firm, Kositzka, Wicks and Company in Richmond, Virginia. Ayliff took the stand Thursday afternoon and continued to be questioned by prosecutors and Manafort’s defense team well into Friday.
Before Laporta took the stand, U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III said either side could raise the immunity issue before the jury as she testifies.
Laporta, who signed Manafort’s tax returns in 2014 and 2015, told the jury KWC gave Manafort a letter making clear they were not auditing or verifying the information clients provided.
She said as she prepared Manafort’s returns, she gathered information directly from him; and from his former business associate, Rick Gates; and their bookkeeper, Heather Washkuhn.
“But who would provide [final] verification of information?” Assistant U.S. Attorney Uzo Asonye asked.
“Mr. Manafort,” she said.
Laporta also told prosecutors that she never sent Manafort’s tax forms without his primary approval.
When she asked for underlying loan documents or back up documents for Manafort’s 1099s or K-1 tax forms, she said she “didn’t always receive them.”
When she didn’t, she would document the omission.
Laporta also said that the firm didn’t investigate or verify the presence of any foreign bank accounts belonging to Manafort while preparing his taxes. That wasn’t something Kositzka, Wicks and company did — it was left up to the owner of those bank accounts, she said.
In a series of emails spanning more than a year displayed in court, Laporta asked Manafort about his foreign-asset disclosures and whether anything had changed.
“No change from 2012 [form],” Manafort wrote.
“If you had known about the foreign accounts what would you have done?” Asonye asked.
Laporta said had she known she would have dug into the origins of the accounts and tracked the flow of money there.
“The penalties and fines are just huge for noncompliance,” she said.
Laporta also told jurors about a September 2015 conference call she had with Gates and her partner, Conor O’Brien, in which they discussed changing the amount of a loan so that Manafort could afford to pay his income taxes.
“He was trying to reduce income and therefore reduce income taxes,” she said.
Laporta said the discussions happened after her company sent a draft tax-return document that included an estimate of how much Manafort would owe. Gates said during the conversation that Manafort did not have the money to cover that much tax.
They agreed to a $900,000 loan, which “Rick said could be paid,” she testified.
Laporta said she knew it was “wrong” to reclassify income as a loan but that her obligation to Manafort, a longtime client, made it difficult to refuse.
Laporta also testified that four season tickets Manafort owned for New York Yankee games were classified as 80 percent business expense and 20 percent personal expense for tax purposes.
Though Laporta said Gates often provided her with information she asked for — a possible boon to the defense, which has been asserting that it was Gates, not Manafort, who was responsible for the financial malfeasance at the center of the trial — Asonye countered by showing the jury a September 2015 email chain in which Manafort forwarded tax documents to Gates, who then passed them along to her.
Laporta said this was typical of how she acquired Manafort’s tax documents.
She then went on to testify, as Ayliff had earlier, that Manafort never told her about his control over foreign companies and bank accounts, or about financial transactions involving them.
Asonye went through a list of more than a dozen foreign companies, asking Laporta if she knew Manafort controlled them.
“No,” she said.
Asked if, as an accountant, she would want to know this information, Laporta said, “We would want to know the full picture.”
Laporta also detailed her involvement in the forgiveness of a $1.5 million loan from Peranova Holdings to Davis Manafort Partners International in 2015. Manafort attempted to take out a mortgage loan on a property he owned on Howard Street in Manhattan, but a bank rejected his application because he did not meet liquidity requirements due to the balance of the Peranova loan, which was issued in 2012.
Peranova Holdings is one of the numerous foreign entities Manafort controlled that prosecutors say he used to shield money from tax obligations.
Manafort asked Laporta to tell a representative of the bank that Peranova had forgiven the loan, though she testified on Friday her only reason to believe the loan was actually forgiven was the word of Manafort and Gates.
Laporta later sent an email to Gates asking for documentation showing the loan had indeed been forgiven. Gates said he would get a letter to her shortly and that in the meantime he would “chase down signatures.”
In February 2016 Gates sent Laporta an email with a Word document attached. The attachment was a letter on Peranova Holdings letterhead addressed to Davis Manafort Partners International confirming Peranova had forgiven the $1.5 million loan.
The letter was dated June 23, 2015, and was unsigned.
Laporta testified the discrepancy between the date of the email and the date on the letter led her to believe at the time that the document was fake. She said she did not edit the document because she wanted it to be her “client’s document.”
Direct examination of Laporta concluded with the tax preparer telling Asonye that in 2016, Rick Gates sent her backdated documents so Manafort could dodge high taxes and secure the loans he needed to offset his debt.
The emails displayed in court Friday afternoon showed Manafort reached out to Federal Savings Bank for a loan that year after asking Laporta for a profit and loss statement showing he earned $2.4 million for his work in Ukraine.
The income would arrive in his account in November, he said.
But Laporta said she wasn’t comfortable noting the income before the money was actually paid.
“Did you believe he was going to receive this money?” Asonye asked.
“I had no idea,” Laporta said.
She never sent the statement to the bank, though.
“Why not?” Asonye said.
“He never sent the documents,” Laporta replied.
Ultimately, she sent the profit and loss statement to Federal Savings Bank anyway, she said.
“Who told you to do that?” Asonye said.
“Paul did,” she said.
After jurors were dismissed for the day, Judge Ellis offered some clarity around Laporta’s immunity – and what that means for defense attorneys who will cross-examine her on Monday.
Ellis reminded defense attorney Kevin Downing that he shouldn’t hold back during cross-examination with witnesses who have been granted use immunity.
“She said on the stand she took responsibility [for her actions,] but she’s not being prosecuted for it. Maybe there were professional consequences for it. I don’t know,” he said before smiling broadly. “But that’s your job.”